Going Back to go Forward

Like the virus, our professional roles are constantly morphing.

Organizations are adjusting how they operate in drastic ways. Many organizations with the option to do so have already decided to manage the majority of their workforce remotely through at least the second quarter of next year. The intent is to provide clarity, help maintain productivity, and protect their employees. The impact is prolonged isolation in extended lockdown. The way we manage the next six months will have to rapidly adjust as well.

Like the virus, stress is contagious.

At best we are tired and resigned. We sleep and care less. We multi-task and medicate more — pharmacologically and virtually. We follow the news we want to hear — to be uplifted sometimes but usually to be more agitated and self-righteous. We find others to share our outrage or deal in dopamine. We become more ourselves. Our circles shrink. When social graces dry up, we are harder to manage and find it harder to manage others.

At first, we made up for isolation with communication and connection.

When it started, we hungered for more connection with people with whom we had things in common — colleagues, classmates, and more distant family members. We set up Slack channels and promised to gather asynchronously around the ethereal water cooler. We said we would talk about football and exchange fun videos. Then progressively the social chatter on Slack channels and MSFT Teams quieted; the Zoom sessions were more intermittent and more sparsely attended. In addition, remote work rewards doers and multi-tasking, making us more impatient.

For most of us and our staff, the mental health impact is now clear.

According to the CDC, depression symptoms are four times higher than they were in 2019, and anxiety symptoms have doubled. Tragically, the young and poor communities suffer the most. A quarter of 18- to 24-year olds surveyed reported serious suicide ideations in the past month. Half of them are now living at home. The extent of the pandemic is such that the veil of mental illness has been lifted and people are opening up to supervisors more to seek support. This places managers in the role of corporate mental health first responders — a role for which they have no training.

Impatience and impaired cognition call for greater clarity in management and thinking about leadership as a “contact” team sport.

Professional sports teams have players, position coaches, and general managers, just to name a few. Each function on the team has a specific role and responsibility. However, there is a head coach who must be a visionary leader with the ability to communicate a high-level pathway on how the team will win each week. The most successful head coaches:

  • visualize the game before it is played,
  • understand the vulnerability of the opponent and within his organization,
  • and, can describe a way in which the team can overcome its vulnerabilities. Then a plan can be developed for the position coaches to execute. The head coach sets the tone and empowers the position coaches to focus on their expertise to influence the outcome of the game.

If time is set aside early in the process, the manager can better direct resources, lead initiatives, and continuously assess progress. Unfortunately, if the manager is unable to understand, visualize, and describe the environment in a way that others can gain clarity, failure is inevitable.

”What did you hear me say?”

Most of us believe we are great communicators. That was probably not true even in the best of times. These are not the best of times. To make up for these gaps, the military uses the “back brief” ­­ — team members brief an initiative’s leader to review how team members intend to accomplish their key objectives.

Normally, team members perform back briefs throughout any initiative. These briefings allow those responsible to clarify the leader’s intent early in the team members’ planning process. Back briefs are used to identify any problems in the overall concept of execution. Back briefs require the fewest resources and are often the only option under time-constrained conditions. Team members explain their actions from the start to the finish of the initiative. Back briefs are performed sequentially, with the entire team reviewing their key requirements.

When this is done properly three key outcomes occur:

1. The team/person being briefed has an opportunity to check to understand the direction.

2. Superiors gain clarification about the implication of their directions and have an opportunity to revise if necessary.

3. This ensures alignment across the organization and creates a unified effort by checking gaps, overlaps, and coherence.

Talk is precious. As all else fails, our basic human need to be understood and to understand can help us feel connected. When teams and individuals feel heard and understood, they are more likely to reach their goals. Stress levels and frustration drop. At a time of low attention spans and high stress, taking the time to message clearly and give others the chance to acknowledge receipt is an investment that can literally save lives.


Please send us feedback and ideas. This work is part of a series of pieces on how military training expertise can assist middle managers during COVID-19 and beyond. Our prior post was on “Piercing the Fog of Zoom,” tips to get clarity when everything is in constant shift and the trappings of power and hierarchy are frayed. Our next post will be “Talk is Precious,” focused on rediscovering the art of conversation in the virtual world.

Dr. Hise O. Gibson is an Academy Professor of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a B.S. in Operations Research from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a Doctorate of Business Administration in Technology and Operations Management from Harvard Business School. His expertise is the intersection of operational effectiveness and human capital development to enable more effective ways to maximize the integration of Technology, People, and Processes throughout an organization.

Carin-Isabel Knoop leads the Harvard Business School’s research and case writing group and has written more than 200 case studies on organizations and managers around the world. At night she thinks about how to make their challenging lives better. This led to research and publications and a book in the area of mental health in the workplace and an interest in human sustainability. She is a pragmatic idealist and fanatic postcard writer.