Back to normal? – How to master the transition to a new normal with 5 tips.
The pandemic has taken a lot out of all of us. We have slid from one lockdown to another and have had to adapt to new conditions and regulations over and over again. Many of us have been faced with various professional as well as personal concerns and hardships that have triggered feelings of uncertainty, overwhelm, fear, anger, helplessness or loneliness. While we have juggled home office with homeschooling and switched into function mode, there has been little time to address our own professional, private and psychological stresses. It has also been and continues to be a challenge for managers to maintain the practical, organizational, and psychological instability that exists within the organization. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the concept of “containing” is helpful here. What this is exactly and how you as a leader can use “containment” in your company to create a successful new normal in your company, you will learn here.
The experiences we made with the pandemic now meet the requirement to adapt to changing working conditions. Depending on the company, employees may stay in the home office, organize themselves in hybrid models, or return to work entirely. In order for this change to succeed without jeopardizing your employees’ mental health and ability to work, you as a leader have a special role to play. Now more than ever, your employees need someone to help them deal with situations of psychological stress. A concept from psychoanalysis that can help you is that of “containing” by W. R. Bion (1992). Although the concept of “containing” comes from psychoanalysis, it can also be applied perfectly in a business context.
Originally, Bion’s work (1992) describes the ability of therapists to take in the strong affects of their patients, modify them, and return them in a “digestible” way so that they can endure, accept, and experience their feelings as belonging to themselves. For leaders, certain “containing” skills are needed for their work. Especially in times of crisis like the pandemic, they are often exposed to strong tensions and projections from their employees, and they need to be able to absorb these well in order to keep the team stable. But what does this look like in practice?
5 tips on how to master the transition to the new normality with “Containing
All in all, there are 2 different levels on which you can start to help your employees deal with mental stress or states of tension. On the one hand, there is the mental level and on the other hand, there is the structural level on which you can apply “containing” measures.
Containing for individual employees
Especially during the pandemic, when mental stress meets the need for adjustment at the workplace, it is important to create capacities for personal conversations for your employees, in which they can talk to you about how they are feeling, their worries and stresses. Make sure that your employees are free to decide whether they want to have this conversation with you, and try to be available to them as an empathetic, active listener. It is important that you do not give advice, do not take over the conversation, and do not dismiss or condemn what is said. First listen to the insecurities, fears, worries and anxieties, take them in and perhaps move them back and forth a little inwardly until you have understood exactly what your employee is concerned about. In this way, you not only convey trust, support and orientation, but also create a place of relief. Then, when the time is right, you can share your thoughts and ideas with your employee to encourage personal growth. The central idea is: behind every problem there is a need that has not (yet) been met.
Containing through delegates
Not every manager manages to create a space for a personal conversation on a regular basis. Some also find it difficult to endure the stressful feelings in the team. If this is the case for you, you are not alone with the current crisis situation and the demands. Involve your employees by appointing one or more “containment officers” to support you. Perhaps there is someone in your team who has a high level of empathy, an overview of the processes in the team and the trust of the employees. By giving them the capacity and freedom to dedicate themselves to their role as a “containment officer”, they can provide relief, support and reassurance to your employees.
Containing in the team
You can also create “Containing” opportunities at the team level. Especially after everyone has returned to the office from the home office, the informal exchange has often fallen asleep in the last 2 years and hardly anyone knows about the others, a space for joint exchange should be created. A weekly touchpoint, for example, is a good way to do this, in which the group talks about the current mood, the challenges and the dynamics in the team. A flashlight round at the beginning of the meeting can help to get a first impression of the moods in the team, which can be taken up and worked on in the course of the meeting. Your task here is to keep the framework in mind, i.e. the beginning and the end, the topics and the flow. Such team meetings are not only relieving, but also create a sense of belonging and commitment to the company.
Containing through routines and structure
While the first three suggestions are a way of “containing” on a mental level, creating structures, processes and rules can also provide security, support and orientation for your employees. Clearly regulating and providing hygiene measures in the company, as well as communicating them transparently, gives the feeling that you care about the health and safety of your employees and that you care about them. During the pandemic in particular, many of us were exposed to constant changes that we could neither influence nor circumvent. As a result, the sense of self-efficacy usually fell by the wayside. By involving your employees in decision-making and change processes and letting them participate, you give them the feeling that they are not passively at the mercy of constant change, but can actively help shape it. This is important not only for their sense of self-efficacy, but also for their self-worth and creates a feeling of being seen in the work context. The latter can also be created by addressing even minor concerns and change requests of your employees and integrating them into the existing structures and processes. If the meeting is too sprawling or impersonal, you can accommodate your team with creative ideas. How about appointing someone to wear the hat for the meetings, collecting topics in advance to structure and shorten the meeting? Or how about having someone talk about a personal item for a minute at the beginning of each meeting, or you start the meeting with a lightning relaxation?
Containing in the larger context
Right now, not only your employees are struggling with existential anxiety and often don’t know what to do next, but the vast majority of us feel the same way. In this regard, Claudia Nagel (2020) writes that the pandemic in our society is triggering strong psychosocial and psychodynamic processes that can permanently change the order and structures of a society. In addition to the Corona Pandemic, she writes of an epidemic of fear and uncertainty that must be contained by government, but also by leaders. In addition to the responsibility leaders have to their employees, their social responsibility to society should be a reason to also think about “containing” in the larger, general-society context. She suggests leaders show up as representatives of society. For example, you could publicly share your feelings, perceptions, and hopes with other entrepreneurs, or show yourself as a human being together with the board of directors, the C-level, or the supervisory or works council via Zoom, intranet, or social media channels. This could also help facilitate a shared, open approach to difficult feelings and a sense of being able to manage the crisis together.
Julia Perlinger, Coach at dynaMIND
Bion, W. R. (1992). Learning from experience. Frankfurt a. M.; Suhrkamp.
Nagel, C. (2020): Leadership in times of COVID19: Containment is key – you are desperately needed!https://forumstrategy.org/leadership-in-times-of-covid19-containment-is-key-you-are-desperately-needed/