Coaching in the Age of COVID

Put a frog in boiling water and he will jump right out. Put the frog in cold water and then turn up the heat, and he will cook to death, not noticing the slow change in temperature. We’ve all heard this, but I read recently that this is just wrong. Frogs are smarter than that. But people? Maybe not so much.

Over the past three years, COVID has changed our lives, even for those who never had it. The boiling water in this case is the generalized increase in stress that we have all experienced. Stress from fear of an unpredictable invisible enemy. Stress from reduced social contacts. Stress from having to put off needed surgery. Stress from having to teach our kids at home – while working! Or having to go to work, just waiting to get sick and maybe die. Stress from shortages. Stress from seeing loved ones die. Long COVID for some. All this stress is having impacts that we coaches will be wise to recognize and factor into our work.

But don’t just take my word for it. Evidence of COVID related stress can be seen in lots of ways:

  • People who manage stress by internalizing it: These people are flocking to therapists with complaints of anxiety and depression. Just try to get an appointment with a therapist.
  • People who manage stress by acting it out: These people are acting out even more – crazy driving, increases in violent crime, increasing behavior problems in schools, etc.
  • Healthcare systems across the country: Among other problems, these systems are struggling with a nursing shortage. Nurses are not quitting just because too many patients died. They are also quitting because, as a nursing leader who works at a top academic medical center hospital told me, they face almost daily danger from patients or their family members who become violent toward nurses.
  • Schools: It is well documented that many children have lost educational progress over the past three years.
  • Public meetings. These meetings, which should be models of constructive dialogue, and used to be, are too often disrupted by shouting.

There has been insufficient recognition of this increased stress. Sure, you hear people ask, “What is wrong with people?” Or moan, “The world has gone nuts! Nothing is as it should be!” Or exclaim, “Can you believe that? The vet yelled at my dog! I’m never going back there again!” Or, “They’ll hire anybody these days, just to fill a seat! (On a flight this week, our pilot said we were on our approach to Atlanta. But we were going to Charlotte! The pilot apologized seconds later, but still. . .) So, informally, we’re all well aware that something is wrong. But is anybody who could help actually recognizing it in a formal way and doing anything about it?

On the contrary, I fear that we have gotten accustomed to the non-medical impacts of COVID on our culture, tolerating the increasing heat without looking for ways to turn it down. Granted, when this crisis began, no one knew what they were doing. In such circumstances, people naturally fight the fire in front of them. In many ways, people have done well. But it is now time to stand back and look at the bigger picture, looking for systemic impacts, causes, and solutions.

That’s where we coaches come in. It is our job to stand a bit above the fray, to ask our clients questions and make observations that someone in the midst of a fire fight might not consider without that kind of a nudge. We need to help our clients see the bigger picture, because they are in a position, as leaders, to work with the systems that they lead.

I’m giving you a tall order. Let’s consider some ideas about how to fill that order. My hope is that we, as a coaching community, can then share more ideas with each other. We’re feeling the stress too. We need to hold each other’s hands. To do that, please respond to this post with your own ideas. With your permission, I’ll share them in the next post two weeks from now.

Questions to Consider Asking Your Clients:

  • If you listen for signs of increased stress in your clients, you will probably hear them. Then you will be in a position to ask something like: “How much of what you are feeling now might be an unrecognized element of the COVID experience we have all had to endure? What is different for you now that was not true pre-COVID?”
  • As you listen to your clients struggle to get recalcitrant followers to do what they need them to do, you will probably hear your clients blame individual personalities. That’s pretty much the amygdala’s first line of defense. Such thinking is often wrong. Consider asking your clients: “What might be going on with this individual? What stresses are they facing that they might not have had to deal with pre-COVID – at work and at home? How is what your organization is asking of them today different from what they may have signed up for years ago?”
  • “COVID has undermined trust in leadership, whether deserved or not. How is this showing up in your organization?”
  • “What has been the impact of COVID on your organization? How has it impacted your workforce? What adaptations have workers and their leaders had to make? What are the pros and cons of working from home.”

These questions, as well as those you might think of, are designed to shift your clients’ attention from tactical fire fighting to larger strategic thinking, because that’s where solutions are born. (Star performers are those who see the big picture.) You won’t have all the answers, and neither will your clients. But getting them to think about these larger issues gives them a fighting chance to work with their people to come up with solutions that will lower the temperature. Doing so is as essential to dealing with COVID as healthcare is.

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