How Hard Should You Push Your Team Right Now?

It's been a long, tough haul, and the Covid crisis isn't quite over yet. Here's why you don't want to demand too much—or go too easy.

We’re almost at the finish line, but not quite. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, it’s been a long, tough haul.

Many managers face a real dilemma as we enter this period of uncertainty: How hard should I push my team and the organization right now?

With the end of the pandemic in sight, we can see business challenges to be addressed and opportunities to be seized. It will be all too easy to “over goal” by attacking on all fronts at once. Other leaders may feel the opposite, wanting to ease up, give the team a break and let them catch their breath.

Both approaches are problematic.

Taking on too much, at this particular juncture, can lead to overload and a sense of futility. Futility begets burnout.

Surprisingly, the other end of the continuum has similar dangers. If the team is merely maintaining the operation—just responding and playing defense—they won’t feel a sense of progress. If this stagnation persists, again, the result is feelings of meaningless and futility.

The sweet spot for success

But there is another way, a sweet spot in the middle. I call it “Whirlwind Plus One.”

Here’s how we get there: Eliminate the far extremes of your business strategy.

Resist the extreme of trying to accomplish everything you want to do — even if you think it’s all possible. But also resist the extreme of treading water. Focus on the most meaningful goals. These are essential to a healthy culture and a healthy state of mind.

By all means, take a moment to acknowledge the craziness, the anxiety and pressure of the past year. Recognize we’ve been whipped around. Then start a conversation around this question, “If every part of our operation—except one—stayed where it is today, what is that one area where we most need to improve?”

The answer is obvious for some teams, but it’s not obvious for most and requires some real analysis. As a leader, you may want to suggest ideas. You may have strong opinions. If so, be transparent and share what you are thinking. But avoid the natural tendency to convince or persuade the team. Instead, spend your energy trying to understand and learn as much as you can from them. In the end, you have the final say on the goal but you’ll find that your team’s buy-in is stronger if you listened more than you talked.

Poisoned by uncertainty

What you don’t want is ambiguity.

Sociologists discovered something interesting when they studied the aftereffects of the 1918 devastating San Francisco earthquake. Divorce rates and marriage rates both skyrocketed.

Wait a minute — did the disaster bring people together or drive them apart?

Neither. Soaring rates were tied to how much uncertainty San Francisco citizens could handle. To manage the overwhelming unpredictability of their lives, residents of the destroyed city hit a point where they could not handle any more open questions. If they had been thinking about getting married, or divorced, they made the decision one way or the other. They stopped sitting on the fence and just moved forward.

When you see people in a work environment hit the point of too much ambiguity, they disengage. They don’t revolt, they don’t quit, they just quietly retreat back to taking care of the day job. If you could read minds, you might hear, “Please, just let me get to Friday without anything else going wrong.” When this is the mood of an organization, you can be assured that the results and the culture are both suffering.

Given the increase in uncertainty in our lives over the last year, the last thing we need now is too little direction or too many objectives. That’s where the power of Whirlwind Plus One comes in: Get clear on the one meaningful and achievable objective in addition to the whirlwind of activities in the day job.

Here’s how David Grissen, former president of the Americas for Marriott, did just that. I once watched Grissen, who retired last year after 36 years with Marriott, deliver one of the most interesting, yet unexpected, messages I had ever witnessed.

Addressing a group of 40 hotel managers, he said, “I’ll let you all in on a secret. If you want to keep your job at Marriott,” he told them, “just take care of the whirlwind.” By that, he meant managers should accomplish everyday tasks competently and quickly. Hold down the fort. That’s all they had to do.

You could see the managers were surprised. “That’s it?” was the unspoken question in the room. Then Grissen dropped the other bit of advice: “Oh, but if you want to get promoted—bring me a result.” Do the day job, then push for one more tangible, measurable success.

In other words, Whirlwind Plus One.

You wonder: “How hard can I push my team just now?” The answer is the same now as it was pre-Covid. You must offer your team a sense of progress, meaning and purpose. Remove ambiguity. Propel them to move forward toward the next achievable goal.