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23 March 2021

Post-Vaccination Unboxing Strategies

Written by
Cornelis Tanis

It had been three months now since Victor moved to his new organization as the Head of Distribution. A bold move during the pandemic it was. Needless to say, he had thought about the challenge of onboarding a new team virtually. The idea would be to spend a lot of time connecting one-on-one and do many of these calls while walking. While that strategy helped build individual relationships and trust, what was rather unexpected was the surge of chatter building up in his head after larger team meetings. He noticed that he was spending a lot of time mulling over what people would think of him, often worried about being misunderstood. Did they get what he was trying to convey? Did he perhaps come in too hard, or too sure about himself and his new ideas? He would also frequently give in to the urge to send direct messages afterwards or keep a record of where he may need to add nuance in the next meeting. He recognized this pattern from when he took on new leadership roles in the past. Yet the current situation felt like a fall-back to him. Only some years ago he had experienced an important developmental shift in himself. With help of colleagues’ feedback and some coaching he had begun to shape a vision and path for what he called the second half of his career. He had learned to listen more to his own voice. He had learned not to be careless about what people thought of him, but to care less. Victor now didn’t feel so victorious. He often feels alone, boxed-in his Zoom box as well as in his mind. Was it really a smart idea to change jobs during a pandemic?  

It had been three months now since Maria started to work with her new colleague Victor in the leadership team. As Head of Sales she had been looking forward to working with him after the interviewing process. Victor seemed a genuinely nice person and his omni-channel experience was much needed. The pandemic already accelerated the transition from direct, high-touch sales to more online sales and distribution. In the last weeks, however, Maria found herself talking with her colleagues about how Victor was showing up. She knew that it would be better to speak with him directly, but with all these Zoom sessions she felt reluctant to plan yet another call about something that may be all a misunderstanding. She did appreciate that he would sometimes send her a quick voice message after a team meeting to clarify a contribution he had made. Yet there was something about it that was worrying her. He seemed to be trying too hard to fit in and make his mark. She was very aware that her team of direct sales reps would need to make a major shift in their move towards a differentiated sales model. Maria was nevertheless concerned that Victor saw her as not keeping up with the times. And actually, her biggest worry was that Victor would also talk about her team directly with colleagues, which could give the impression that she might not have what it takes. Was there a power grab going on, or was this because he was still relatively new? Was this a gender thing? She would ask the finance manager later this afternoon.

We are Victor and Maria. Colleagues boxing in each other, and boxing in ourselves. While this phenomenon also occurred before the pandemic, the shift to  virtual communication as our primary mode of connection has the potential to exacerbate being boxed-in and feeling boxed-in for several reasons. One is that we have little to no opportunity to connect in-person before, during, and after meetings in the hallway or by the coffee machine. These sorts of unplanned interactions–which were easy pre-pandemic and nearly absent now– can broaden the perceptions we have of each other, spark new ideas, energize us, and increase connections. Without these in-the-flesh reality checks, it is more challenging to calibrate our perceptions of ourselves, of others, and of the issues at hand. When on top of that we are also constantly seeing and evaluating ourselves on the screen, our inner critics work overtime, which is exhausting. Another reason may be that this global pandemic creates a context where our sympathetic nervous systems are more activated and, as a result, we can feel less in control, more in danger, less patient, more drained, and more focused on survival. When this happens, we are even more likely to simplify how we view people and situations. We tend to find what we are looking for and can jump to conclusions, solutions, and actions. As the number of meetings we attend increases over time, this build-up of biased perceptions and habits can erode energy, creativity, connection, good decision-making, and motivation. Boxed-in and Burnt Out. 

Simple unboxing strategies

You may already appreciate that there’s no simple solution for such a complex and dynamic predicament. But what to do? Here I offer three possible approaches and will end with a silver lining. 

1.     Keep breathing.  The odds of boxing-in may decrease when we ourselves feel less drained and anxious. Research shows that looking at (and evaluating) ourselves constantly in a box on a screen increases fatigue. We can save energy and limit the rise of cortisol levels by, for example, activating the Hide Self View option in Zoom. The idea to use audio-only more often and to walk while making calls is another good practice. Or consider scheduling 50 or 55-minute meetings instead of the standard 60 minutes to give yourself some time to unwind, recharge, and move around.  With the prospect that we might still be many months from widespread vaccination, these types of by now familiar responses might be key to actually not caving in altogether. You may also wish to read my colleague Jennifer’s perspective on how we already have many gifts in ourselves to better handle these times.

2.     Check-out in team meetings. Recently, I enjoyed how a new colleague turned my attention to check-outs as a way to un-box myself and others. A check-out that helps to elicit thoughts and feelings at the end of a meeting supports individuals to bring something in their awareness for themselves, witnessed by colleagues. This gives everybody the opportunity to co-create a more nuanced ending. For example, when you think that somebody was rather disengaged, hearing that person express gratitude for the rich ideas he got can help you to ruminate less after the meeting about how your contribution landed with him. The same is true the other way around. I know that check-outs are good practices, but I find them harder to do in virtual meetings that are scheduled back-to-back and that often feel more transactional than relational. No matter if the meeting is 55 or 60 minutes, we usually reconfirm Parkinson’s law: expanding the work to fill the time available for its completion. What if we came to see a check-out as part of the work? Next time, keep three minutes at the end to go around, each answering a question like: “In two or three words (or in one sentence) how would you describe how you feel right now?” Virtual meetings in general, and this move in particular, do require tighter facilitation though. One way to enlist the participation of the whole group in this sort of ending–and to keep it moving along–is to encourage each person to ‘pass the baton’ on to the next person after they speak. This ‘simple rule’ increases speed and gives everyone an opportunity to ‘un-box’ before the bell rings. Another approach is to ask a person to take on the role of ‘Guardian of the 5-min Check-Out’ because juggling many different meeting objectives at the same time can be hard as a convener of a virtual team meeting.

3.     Take the time for an in-person and deep team check-in, post-vaccination. I heard and experienced it many times during the last year: a crisis amplifies the cracks that were already in the system. While not every team has the same number of cracks (and some teams actually thrive during these virtual times), I sense a big leadership response-ability around the corner. When post-vaccination we hurl ourselves forward and happily double down our efforts, I worry that built up clutter and chatter may bite us in the tail. Now, I don’t think we need group therapy at work. Nevertheless, if people feel boxed-in, we need to help them un-box themselves, and others. If tensions in the team have – inadvertently – become more toxic over time, we need to take the time to help de-tox and restore these relationships. In our work with clients we often facilitate deep dialogues where team members feel seen, heard, and connected in a way that they rarely, if ever, did before. This work includes creating and holding a safe space for conversations, using questions like: 

  • What is it that you think this team needs to know about your role that they don’t? 
  • What is it that you worry that this team might think about you? 
  • What is something you think this team doesn’t see about you?  
  • What does it feel like to be in Victor’s or Maria’s place, for example?

Post-vaccination silver lining

I envision that magic will happen in conversational spaces where we recover and integrate richer pictures of ourselves and of each other into re-humanized and bold plans for our businesses, clients, colleagues, and communities. 

  • How are you beginning to think about creating the conditions for your teams to reconnect and come to terms with what they have lost, gained, and felt in the past 1.5 years?  
  • As you unpack this opportunity, what opens up for Victor, Maria, and their colleagues?  And for you and your team?

Gratitude goes to colleague Katina Cremona for helping shape this blog.

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