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Leadership

Why worry about the wellbeing of winners?

Published 18 June 2021 in Leadership • 7 min read

Success in business is normally an energizer, but everything changed in this era of pandemic fatigue, writes Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg 

The pandemic has created winners and losers. For obvious reasons, we tend to give attention to the wellbeing of those who have suffered the hard blows and think about how we can help them to recover.  

But speaking with leaders from more than 25 global companies who have seen their businesses flourish and bloom reveals a striking pattern: leaders at winning companies report having deeply mixed emotions, feeling just as exhausted as their more unfortunate peers, and on top of that being puzzled by their reactions to their own flourishing during a period of great uncertainty.  

The usual psychological laws of winning seem to have been disrupted. Why are winning leaders not feeling grateful, accomplished and fired up right now?  

First, there is survivors’ guilt: many leaders have a nagging feeling that their success is not earned, but endowed on them by random luck, and has come at the expense of other, less fortunate companies. Think of the massive shift in private consumption from travel and eating out to nesting, comfort eating and homemaking. If you happen to be in the business of selling home fitness equipment, you have not become a 25% better performer overnight. You just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the winds changed – and you and you team know it.  

Second, they are suffering from pandemic fatigue by association. Normally, success works like an energizer: winning triggers celebrations, creates economic surplus, stokes confidence and accelerates forward momentum for businesses and teams. But even successful leaders are subject to the now familiar scourge of pandemic fatigue, from Zoom exhaustion to more existential feelings of isolation and disconnection. It’s hard to feel that collective rush via Zoom, and it is even harder to find personal energy when your days lack variation and the gloom of the pandemic enters your life through the cracks. The “success breeds success” link seems to broken.  

Third, they are seeing the shadow of the future: most companies set targets and measure and reward performance against last year. It is a behavior so entrenched in management systems and processes that it has become the framework for psychological self-evaluation even when it is obviously meaningless (2020 may be the worst baseline year in recent corporate history). Nevertheless, leaders fail to consider alternative ways of setting targets and rewarding performance. Psychologically, this creates disillusion, disenfranchisement, and distrust in leaders.  

Leading a pandemic winner through the post-pandemic backlash will require a bit of counterintuitive adjustment to your mindset and stewardship.  

For some, demand drove a sense of purpose and engagement; but even in that frenzy, there was a need to maintain relationships. 

The pandemic has disrupted the link between what we do and the outcomes

 

We are a food company; when this started a year ago, we didn’t know how the pandemic would affect our ability to provide enough food and keep our factories running,” said Pamay Bassey, Kraft Heinz Chief Learning and Diversity Officer, “but it became a rallying cry for the company and we even made sure that we kept the factories moving 24/7.  

“Our purpose ‘Let’s make life delicious’ really came alive. But it was also hectic with a new enterprise strategy, a business transformation and a cultural transformation. We have done well. But the backdrop is that right outside our doors, people and stakeholders were suffering, they were dying and we were still in fight or flight mode.” 

And, of course, this pace made even steady success take its toll. “Now the company is doing very well but the pain we are feeling is deep and the pace we have been running has been fast,” said Bassey. “We try to listen to each other and really take more time for one-to-one interaction, asking each other about other things than work and trying to set boundaries with our time.”  

As most of the world turned to digital living and searching frantically for answers, Google saw usage and demand explode, but also saw its role in global society crystalize. Access to information became more important than ever to both leaders and to the public.  

However, leaders at Google soon realized that you could not deal with a crisis by relying on the energy surge of success alone.  

As Google’s President of Europe, Middle East and Africa Matt Brittin observed: ”In an organization designed to encourage people and ideas to collide in physical spaces, unlocking energy and innovation, one of the hardest challenges was maintaining energy when we were permanently alone.” The suddenly solitary work space required a shift in approach. “I learned to start every meeting, whether internally or with customers and partners, by asking: what is something that gave you energy recently?” 

Sharing these experiences, Brittin said, “raised energy by giving us images of woodland walks, a stolen coffee in the sun, a moment of laughter, and a reminder to do these things ourselves. We found the need to more consciously renew the connection of work to personal purpose and also keep creating a bit of randomness.” 

 

People and stakeholders were suffering, they were dying and we were still in fight or flight mode
Pamay Bassey, Kraft Heinz Chief Learning and Diversity Officer


Recalibrate responsibility 

Many leaders are so used to attributing business progress to clever strategies, stellar execution and deft communication; but the pandemic has disrupted the link between what we do and the outcomes. Global consumer needs are so reshaped by the pandemic that a campaign that once yielded a mediocre return now explodes. Conversely, a product launch that would normally be an earth-shattering blockbuster now touches down on dry land, only because of the exceptional circumstances.  

As you plan and communicate, don’t fall prey to attribution bias – ascribing the success of your business to your own decisions and actions. Distinguish between the external factors that have supported your success and your own contribution. As one CEO remarked, “We won because we have been preparing for the pandemic for three years without really knowing it.” Separating luck from leadership builds credibility, releases tension and constructively challenges your team to come up with tactics to win in new ways.  

 

Rethink expectations 

Nobody can really foresee what the infamous “new normal” will look like. Will we see a fast or dragged-out normalization? Will the shopping habits forged by the pandemic have changed for good or was it just a blip? Will we see lasting macroeconomic recovery boom be followed by a sudden bust?  

As Danny Gilbert pointed out in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, we are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy, but nevertheless we plan ahead because there is a lot of wellbeing in taking control of our own destiny. Expectations are an inescapable fact of corporate and personal life and cannot be fully suspended. But we must break our habits and rethink expectations.  

Managing expectations will require psychological scenario planning – preparing for radically different situations, for example – and reconsidering benchmarks for success. And if you meet with success, this is not the time to drop agile crisis management mode. Instead, continue to update and realign expectations with colleagues and your organization, for example by reshuffling priorities, resetting targets and redistributing resources. 

One of the hardest challenges was maintaining energy when we were permanently alone
Matt Brittin, Google President of Europe, Middle East and Africa


Rebalance empowerment 

Leaders have become so accustomed to the dual practice of empowering individuals and teams and then holding them accountable for performance that they fail to consider when this approach flips from being motivating and invigorating to being crushing and paralyzing. If leaders delegate too much of the burden of future performance in times of excessive volatility, they put the wellbeing of the teams at risk. This is particularly salient in companies and cultures populated with “insecure overachievers”.  

As leaders, it is time to take a different approach to risk and reward. For starters, don’t define success in terms outcomes but in terms of actions. Take some of the risk off the shoulders of your team members. Reward doing the right things and doing things right rather than turning your formal and informal reward and motivation systems into a game of post-pandemic roulette.  

Worrying about the wellbeing of winners may at first sound somewhat indulgent. But it is not. It is actually due diligence for executives and boards at companies that have weathered the crisis and even thrived during this period. Many of the 2020 pandemic losers will be fueled by the return to normality; many pandemic winners will see tailwinds turn into headwinds.  

The pandemic has taught us that psychological resilience comes from seeing setbacks as temporary, random and manageable. Leaders must be just as resilient when they consider their pandemic successes and see them as windfalls that can’t be sustained, but only used as springboards for reinvention and the next big move.   

Authors

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Adjunct Professor at IMD

Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg is a clinical psychologist who specializes in organizational psychology. As an executive advisor, she has more than two decades of experience developing executive teams and leaders, and she runs her own business psychology practice with industry-leading clients in Europe and the US in the financial, pharmaceutical, consumer products and defense sectors, as well as family offices. Merete is the author of the book Battle Mind: How to Navigate in Chaos and Perform Under Pressure.

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