Anna is sitting at home at the dining table working out a coaching conversation, while her son Luuk is playing in the living room. Anna had a complicated discussion with sharp disagreements with one of her team members an hour ago and recognizes that she is still feeling stressed because of it. Luuk also keeps coming to interrupt her, asking for attention and cuddles.
Then the screen of her phone lights up and she receives a message from her partner. Have you seen the news? The schools are closing again. We’re going into strict lockdown.’ Anna starts sweating. Lockdown? How is she supposed to make that work? Her job is already so busy. At that moment Luuk crashes his Lego car hard against the door. Anna is startled by the sound and shouts:
“Do you mind turning it down a bit? Mummy can’t work like that!” Luuk is frightened by her loud voice and pulls back. Anna already regrets her outburst and sighs.
“Please come here, Luuk,” she asks. Luuk comes to her carefully.
“I’m sorry Mummy frightened you. Mummy has just had some bad news and that made her angry. It’s not your fault.” She gives Luuk a hug.
You don’t explode just like that
It’s so recognisable, isn’t it? It happens to all of us from time to time that the smallest things cause us to explode. It may seem to come out of nowhere, but there is always a cause. In Anna’s case, her nervous system was already overloaded by the difficult conversation she’d had with her team member. When your nervous system is overloaded, the people around you, like Anna’s son Luuk, also feel it in their own nervous system. That is why Luuk – like all children in a similar situation – started demanding even more attention, when it was almost too much for Anna.
In the current situation, in which we are mostly working at home and living in stress, these incidents are only becoming more frequent. Also within the teams that managers – often from a distance – have to manage. There, too, the proverbial Lego cars regularly collide. And conflict situations arise more quickly and frequently. How do you deal with this as a manager? To understand this, a bit of theory is needed.
Window of Tolerance
During the day we all function with some excitement or alertness or with a certain level of stress. We need this tension to perform our tasks well. So there is nothing wrong with a certain amount of stress or tension. It only becomes problematic if this stress level goes beyond a certain framework. That is the ‘Window of Tolerance’, a concept from Neuroscience, described by Dan Siegel.
Within that framework we function optimally. We can keep our attention well focused on what we are doing and what is asked of us. When the upper limit of this framework is reached, the reptilian part of our brains takes over. There is also a lower limit. When this is reached, our nervous system dissociates, and we become passive.
* I have written several blogs before about the different reactions of our nervous system:
– Help, a tiger in the workplace
– My whole body starts shaking
– Stress in Teams | How, as a manager, you must not give up when your team is stressed
Every time someone experiences a trauma (big or small), the ‘Window of Tolerance’ gets smaller and we hit the upper or lower limit sooner. In Anna’s example, first she has a difficult conversation, then she is constantly disturbed by her son, and on top of all that, she gets the news that there will be another lockdown. The Lego collision then acts as the proverbial straw but is certainly not the cause of Anna’s outburst. Fortunately, she can explain this to Luuk.
This also happens regularly in a team. Team members are often all in their own situations, where small or larger irritations within the family – which you as a manager have no insight into – can lead to a higher stress level among team members, causing the Window of Tolerance’ to shrink to such an extent that ‘just like that’ an outburst can occur.
But also the manager himself has to deal with sudden changes. Team members who have to go into quarantine, suddenly call in sick or have to combine their work with sick housemates or children living at home. There is a lot to deal with.
I have great admiration for you
I have deep respect for every parent who works from home, but especially for the managers who have to manage their team from a distance. In fact, I think many people today deserve the Nobel Prize for work-life balance, as Anna does, and maybe you do too.
I am sure you will recognise yourself to a greater or lesser extent in the example I started this blog with. Therefore, I want to say to you that it is OK to get overwhelmed at times and to explode. But don’t forget that this situation is also simply difficult.
The economy keeps going because there are many home workers who manage to combine their family, their work and the well-being of their team. By trial and error… and that is allowed!
Two years ago, long before Covid-19 hit us, I wrote a hopeful blog in January: Rays of Light | How we can look at ourselves with mildness that I would like to pass along to you. I ended with a poem by Michael Leunig, which is so appropriate here that I would like to repeat it:
Let it go,
let it out,
let it all unravel.
Let it free
and it will be
a path on which to travel.
One step forward
I am convinced that anyone who is able to manage a team at a distance, and combine this with his or her family is, by definition, a good manager. So are you! One of the characteristics of a good manager is recognising that sometimes you need help. Sometimes you really don’t know what to do and you need someone to look over your shoulder, so that you can take a step forward in your personal and professional development. Is this what you need as manager or coach? Then feel free to plan a strategy discussion with me.
You are welcome.Yes, I would like to schedule a free strategy meeting with Linda