Illustration: Sebastien Thibault By Sam Walker Close Sam Walker Jan. 9, 2021 12:00 am ET If you’re one of those hard-ga
If you’re one of those hard-galloping, high-voltage bosses who’s never had trouble launching out of bed in the morning or finding clever ways to motivate people, I’d like to make the following prediction about you.
This pandemic has been humbling.
Several business leaders have privately confessed to me that lately, their mojo tanks are running dangerously low. In some cases, they’re wondering if they have enough drive and ambition to continue leading at all.
Before we talk about fixing this, let’s make one thing perfectly clear. If you’ve got the Zoom-bunker blahs, don’t beat yourself up. There’s nothing wrong with you.
Many people believe that motivation is a product of their own superior mental strength and discipline. But that’s a myth. Motivation is just another primal emotion people feel when chemical reactions in their brains produce dopamine. Our behavior can make these reactions more likely, but we can’t force them.
Dan Cable, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, believes motivation grows at work when people satisfy their natural “seeking” instinct to learn, experience, experiment and explore. It also comes when we express ourselves creatively, take on challenging tasks and find purpose and meaning in our work.
Here’s the problem: the pandemic has basically carpet-bombed all of these things.
It’s tough to let our minds roam free when we’re trapped at home in our sweatpants. Unless you’re fighting Covid-19 on the front lines, your work may not seem quite as important as it once did. And the skills most of us have developed aren’t always helpful in the throes of a bizarre, shape-shifting crisis.
The real reason leaders are losing steam, I suspect, is that they keep trying the same things and hoping for different results. So, here are some strategies for fighting the malaise.
Be a realist
Many sweatpants managers have resorted to the world’s most popular motivational tactic: positive thinking. If you banish pessimism and focus only on the outcome you want, the theory goes, you’re more likely to take the necessary steps to get there. The same concept can be applied to motivating your team. It’s gonna be great!
Gabriele Oettingen, a New York University psychology professor and the author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking,” isn’t a fan of this mind-set. In fact, she’s spent years amassing evidence that positive thinkers are actually less likely to achieve their goals.
She has found, for instance, that women who have extreme fantasies about how wonderful their lives would be if they lost weight are actually less likely to shed the extra pounds. “Our mind is very powerful,” Dr. Oettingen says. “If we imagine really hard, we can really experience it. We feel accomplished and we relax because we’re already there.”
Her advice for reaching goals and boosting motivation is to strike a balance. It is OK to fantasize about how things could be, but only to a point. The trick is to devote equal time to figuring out how to overcome the real, specific obstacles in your way.
Small moments of completion
Navigating the complexity and uncertainty of a global pandemic has squeezed everyone’s brain capacity. There is simply less space up there for the sort of thinking that motivates us; learning, exploring and being creative.
Ceri Evans, a New Zealand forensic psychiatrist and the author of “Perform Under Pressure,” believes he’s identified one significant compounding problem: the to-do list.
Long before the pandemic, Dr. Evans described to-do lists as “a universal tool for nonperformance.” Now, as these lists grow longer and more intimidating, he believes they’re doing considerably more harm than good.
Dr. Evans, who works with elite athletes and teams, says the ideal high-performance mind-set is a balance between the “blue” functions of the brain (logical and analytical thinking) and its primal “red” functions (powerful feelings and emotions). Too much blue can lead us to overthink things and suffer “paralysis by analysis,” he says, while too much red can make us lose control.
A to-do list, Dr. Evans says, is basically “blue-brain heaven.” By enumerating tasks, we’re trying to make the way forward seem more logical and linear. But the items on our lists can be profoundly different.
If you need to renew your auto registration, that is a straightforward and logical “blue” job. But if you need to have a painful conversation with a colleague or start looking for a new job, that task carries an emotionally loaded “red” charge.
The fatal flaw of to-do lists is that by ticking off a bunch of blue items, people can convince themselves they’ve made real progress and that it’s OK to skip all the red items that fill them with existential dread.
“Our red minds can’t be silenced,” Dr. Evans says. Ignoring the red stuff leaves a feeling of chronic pressure and tension that is never released and may start to feel permanent. “It creates an emotional burden we carry around day after day,” he says.
Dr. Evans doesn’t think you should scrap your to-do list: he suggests dividing items into red and blue and committing yourself to tackling one red task a day, ideally before noon. “Don’t be a hero,” he says, “just do one.”
These small acts of completion spark a relief sensation that can boost energy and free up mental space for activities that create motivation. “I can promise people that if they do that every day, their lives will change.”
Attack your team’s red zones
One of the most underrated things a leader can do, Dr. Evans says, is help other people conquer their own red monsters.
He suggests calling each member of your team and asking them what red tasks they keep putting off. Maybe they can’t figure out how to approach a struggling direct report, or have fallen five months behind on expense reports. His advice: offer to help, or just do it with them. “People will love you for it,” he says.
Another benefit, of course, is that you’ll help them unclutter their own crowded minds.
Another way to lighten a team’s red burdens is to eliminate “priority creep.” During the pandemic, most companies have added several new institutional priorities to the pile. But having too many mandates without a clear hierarchy, Dr. Evans says, “crushes quality, saps energy and eventually makes people burn out.”
His advice to leaders: Gather your team, list all of the priorities they’ve been given, and whack as many as possible. For the rest, try to rank them by importance.
Make some predictions
Fred Dust, a former global managing director for the design firm IDEO and the author of “Making Conversation,” has spent years studying how people connect, or fail to connect, and how conversations can be improved.
The reason some conversations don’t work, and leave people feeling flat, he says, is that they fall victim to a prescribed script. These scripts, he believes, have a lot to do with where a conversation takes place and how it’s framed.
The pandemic is so all-encompassing, he says, that it’s become the default frame for every conversation at work. And that tends to stifle creative thinking. One tactic Mr. Dust recommends is called “hunch hour.” This is a meeting where everyone simply takes turns sharing a prediction. These hunches can be about anything, not just business. But Mr. Dust suggests adding a new rule: it can’t be about the pandemic.
These sessions may not have any practical value, but that’s not the point. A robust hunch hour, Mr. Dust says, forces everyone to step outside the constricted frame of Covid-19 and uncork their imaginations.
Anyone can have an opinion, but a strong hunch is deeply personal. You can’t have one unless you’re willing to let your mind do some unstructured exploring. And that’s the kind of exercise that fuels motivation.
When professional athletes come to Ceri Evans for advice on performing under pressure, one of the first things he does is ask them to describe the worst 10 minutes of their careers.
Most often, he says, they cite some situation where they made a series of mistakes. A soccer player, for instance, might regret playing sloppily in the final stages of their first World Cup match. But they rarely blame their failures on the circumstances.
What makes any mishap truly painful for people, he says, is how that failure made them feel. “They’ll usually say they lost their way, lost their nerve or lost their touch.”
In other words: What really haunts people in uncomfortable situations is how they reacted—and that’s something they can control. The key to avoiding these deflating moments, he says, is “having greater control of your internal world.”
Dr. Evans argues that the only way to achieve genuine greatness is to push yourself right up to the limits of your ability. And when you’re operating out there, you’re guaranteed to feel uncomfortable. So, how you perform under duress depends on how constructively you manage your own discomfort.
Even before the pandemic, most people did everything they could to reduce pressure and tension. “Most of us live in a comfort trance,” Dr. Evans says. But this crisis is so unusual and complex that everyone is fumbling around at their limits. To feel better about how you’re navigating this crisis, he says, “you have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Here’s the thing: if you’re feeling unmotivated, the pandemic is an excellent excuse. But you have more control than you think. If you keep reminding yourself that learning to manage discomfort is the secret to greater achievement in life, the road ahead might not seem like an endless and insufferable motivation desert.
It might look more like a classroom.
—Mr. Walker, a former reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, is the author of “The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams” (Random House).
Write to Sam Walker at [email protected]
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Appeared in the January 9, 2021, print edition as ‘How Drained Bosses Can Find New Energy.’