We didn’t come this far to only come this far

The Phoenix Effect: The triangle of fire required for organisations to revive and thrive after surviving Covid-19

Many organisations are still very much in the throes of doing the things they need to do to survive the Covid-19 crisis. At some point, and now may well be too soon for some, the focus will start to shift towards how best to enable your organisation to revive and then thrive.

Just as creating fire requires fuel, oxygen and heat all to be present, to effectively revive an organisation to rise from the ashes of Covid-19 looks like it will require three interlinked and interdependent elements.

  1. Organisational attitude and ambition for the future
  2. Self compassion at the heart of our relationship with work
  3. What’s really valued in our organisations

If any one of these elements is not present then an organisation is less likely to revive effectively and could fail to create the conditions in which it and its people can thrive in future.

And our knowledge and experience is telling us that it’s going to take something simple, but not easy, in each of these three elements if we are to truly effect substantial and sustainable change in how people and organisations interact and engage with each other.

On the endless journey to recruit and develop the highest performing team possible there’s potential competitive advantage to be gained in understanding these elements and applying them to your organisation.

Element 1 – Organisational attitude and ambition for the future

I keep hearing people talking about the reset that’s going to happen as organisations move through their response to Covid-19 towards the so-called “new normal”. While I applaud the sentiment in principle, for us to properly apply the learning from this and improve our collective futures we’re going to need to think carefully about what this is going to mean in practise. We need to be precise in our attitude and intention, and clear about our ambition.

So first be really clear that the current situation may well represent a once in a generation opportunity to re-assess the structure and culture of our organisations. If that’s not your attitude, then you’re highly likely to return to the old normal in next to no time. That might be perfectly fine – but do it by design, not by accident.

But there’s a note of caution if the old normal is your choice. You need to accept that it might not be fit for future purpose. We’re seeing plenty of signals that this situation is prompting people to re-evaluate what matters most in their lives. This could well be creating a different set of expecations for their relationship with work (more on this later). So if you choose to return to the old normal it’s possible that other organisations might take the opportunity to re-set and overtake you in the competition to recruit and retain the best people.

So, choose your attitude towards this with your eyes wide open. Failing to re-set your structure and culture might mean you are passing up on a once in a generation opportunity to make your workplace better.

If you do choose to take this opportunity for a re-set then you will benefit greatly from taking the time to be crystal clear about your ambition. Loose generalisations like “new normal” are not helpful because they are devoid of real meaning. If you’ve not answered the following questions as business leaders then you might be lucky enough to stumble by happy accident into a decent place or, more likely, you’ll fail to make the most of the opportunity.

  • Is it your ambition to return quickly to business as usual, as things were before Covid-19? Or is it your ambition to make a change in your organisational structure and/or work culture?
  • If change is the ambition then what, specifically, does that mean?
  • What would success look like at the end of this year? And this time next year? And 2 years from now?
  • How do you want the people in your organisation to feel – about their work, about your business and about your leadership?
  • How do you want your organisation and its people to be working?
  • What does this mean for the structure of how people can do their work?
  • What does this mean for the work culture you want to create?

If you want to take this opportunity to re-assess the structure and work culture of your organisation you need a clear ambition. Without clarity of ambition, failure is a more likely outcome.

Element 2 – Self-compassion at the heart of our relationship with work

During this crisis I’ve noticed something peculiar. Some people are finding this new way of working easier. Some, and they asked me to whisper this, are even enjoying it.

One person said to me recently, “I’m taking better care of myself, spending more time with my husband and getting just as much work done. This is good. I want to find out how I can work more like this when we’re out of lockdown.”

Someone else said, a little tongue in cheek and with more than a small hint of naughtiness, “I’m spending more time with my wife. She’s really nice!”

Yet, at the same time these people are apologising for this. Whispering it because they don’t want others to hear. Maybe they’re feeling a bit guilty about finding it easier and enjoying this way of working. Perhaps they feel bad because they are aware that others are finding this really difficult.

Feeling bad about experiencing something good is extremely unhelpful if it leads us to keep it quiet. Instead would it not be better to look to capitalise on what we’re finding out? Instead of treating the following list as things to hide or feel guilty about, how about we look to more consistently create these characteristics in our relationship with our work?

  • More ease
  • Enhanced enjoyment
  • A better blend of work within life
  • Improved mental and physical health
  • Sustainability in our effort levels
  • Less tiredness
  • Improved relationships
  • Available capacity to respond to opportunities or challenges

We will only realise these benefits for ourselves if we can demonstrate more self-compassion – if we can be kinder to ourselves.

So, my challenges for us on an individual level:

  • Can we break out of the busy-ness trance?
  • Can we give ourselves permission to set (and stick to) boundaries for our work within our lives?
  • Can we stop wearing being tired or close to burnout as some kind of a perverse badge of honour?
  • Can we truly start to believe that it’s okay for work to feel a bit easier? That it’s more than just okay to be kind to ourselves from time to time – it is, in fact, essential if we’re going to be the best versions of ourselves and lead the most satisfying lives.
  • Can you start to take better care of yourself so you have energy and effort in reserve to draw upon when you need it most – rather than needing that energy and effort most when it’s already at a low ebb?

These things are possible, but, in part, for them to happen it’s going to require people to make those choices for themselves. To make choices to take better care of themselves, make time for their relationships, to be kind to themselves and, as a result, to move towards greater ease and enjoyment in their relationship with work.

Element 3 – What organisations really value

I’d guess many of you were reading that last bit and were thinking that I’m an idealistic idiot. You’ve got too much to do. Maybe you’re right. However, I do totally understand that for the best possible outcomes to happen from this we need the organisation to play an active role. And I think that means many organisations making a cultural shift in belief about what excellence looks like.

Here’s what I mean…

People who are great at what they do make it seem easy.

Watch Roger Federer glide around the tennis court. Observe Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce relaxed and enjoying herself while running at stupendous speed over 100m. Recall Eliud Kipchoge running the sub 2-hour marathon looking like he could have run even faster. Picture Angela Merkel staying calm, collected and communicating with total clarity under huge pressure. Remember Jacinda Ardern responding with grace, humanity and compassion in the face of horrendous events in New Zealand. Watch Free Solo and Alex Honnold scaling Yosemite’s 3200-foot high El Capitan without ropes whilst looking like he’s taking a stroll in the park.

They are what excellence really looks like. They’ve put in the work at the right time, to make it easy when it matters. In performance, for people who are excellent at what they do, it often appears almost effortless. It’s not, but it looks it. Increased effort is something they apply with discretion, when they need it, not all the time. Making it easy is what they are working hard to do.

And if we’re going to make the most of this opportunity for a re-set we need to start embedding this belief about what excellence looks like into what we value within our working culture. We will benefit from valuing the things that encourage people to make their work easier and more enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean we stop stretching people or creating positive pressure to perform (we don’t want people to get bored or stop developing), but it does mean we look to do less dialing up the pressure to the point at which it turns into unhelpful stress.

As a result of this shift, over time, organisations might just change their relationship with the people who choose to work there.

So, rather than simply celebrating people who “go above and beyond”, “go the extra mile” or “put in the long shifts” how about we start to adjust the narrative to something that celebrates performances that also support sustainable rather than just short term success?

I’m thinking about giving recognition to the quietly effective person who prevents problems, rather than just the super hero who puts their cape on and their underpants on the outside and swoops in to save the day when problems need solving. In business, I’d argue that problem preventers are even more valuable than problem solvers. They save us a whole lot of time and effort.

How about we celebrate the people who get their work done within the normal working day, consistently get home at a sensible time, have time and energy for family, friends, hobbies, relaxation, etc., and are therefore setting themselves up for sustainable excellence.

How about we change our rating systems and give the top ratings to people who get their job done AND make it look easy AND have capacity spare to increase effort when and where it’s most needed (AND, by the way, ideally we’re planning that this increased capacity isn’t going to be needed for a lot of the time because what we really value is the human and their life satisfaction as well as their performance and results in their work).

Yes, sometimes hard work or some long shifts are needed to get the job done, but that discretionary time and effort is more readily available when the day to day is made a little easier.

So what

Everyone who is reading this has a choice.

Business leaders – be clear about your ambition, or pass up this opportunity.

Individuals – be kinder to yourself by seeking ease, enjoyment and spare capacity, or remain in a busy-ness trance.

Organisations – re-assess your view of excellence and what you value, or keep reinforcing an inaccurate model of excellence.

If we all play our part there’s a chance that we might revive our organisations into better places for our people and come out of these difficult times having created something good with a kinder work culture.

What next

If you’re interested in bringing any of these ideas to life for your business then please get in touch. We’d love to help. Email us on hello@planetK2.com and we can make a time to chat.

We’ve also developed two new programmes to help people perform in a more consistent and sustainable way:

  1. The Athlete at Work

Focusing on understanding performance & results, building performance readiness, increasing capacity to perform and fuelling motivation by increasing Control, Confidence & Connectedness.

This programme is being led by Matt Barker, who wrote this blog – more details.

  1. Playing From The Heart

Redefining your relationship with work, focusing on work performance quality, perceived effort and work satisfaction.

This programme is being led by our performance director, Dr. Chris Shambrook – more details.