"Everybody is stressed" used to be hyperbole. But today, it's reality. And none of us know how long this is going to last. Between working remotely, homeschooling our kids, health concerns, racial tensions, economic challenges, and more, the list of worries and tensions can seem endless.
If you're a leader whose intention is to treat your colleagues with compassion, your instinct might be to lower your standards. "There's no way I can expect my team to deliver at a high level with everything going on right now," you think to yourself.
But this mindset can be a mistake, shares Frances Frei, co-author with Anne Morriss of Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You.
Recently, I interviewed Frei. She told me "people thrive in the presence of high standards." When, as leaders, we "set expectations that are both high and clear," people will stretch themselves to reach them, she said.
But that's only half the equation. "They also thrive in the presence of deep commitment to their success," she continued. She and Morriss call this powerful leadership combination "love," as in: "It's the utmost expression of love to help someone achieve their full potential. And when people feel your devotion to them and to their success, they will thrive."
However, in practice, leaders tend to make tradeoffs. We either set high standards while making ourselves "emotionally chilly" (low devotion) or demonstrate deep care while lowering standards. These dynamics are stressful for our colleagues.
On one end, we show up with "severity" -- trying to toughen someone up by holding them accountable, with little tolerance for mistakes. Or we show up demonstrating "fidelity," which is when we turn a blind eye to someone's gaps and development areas because they're succeeding in other ways (and, yes, others notice this). Or we demonstrate neglect, by writing someone off as not worthy of our time or attention.
If you're looking to contribute positively to the professional and personal well-being of your team members, you can and should have high standards.
Here are three standards to raise today:
1. Optimizing your employees' time
"Remove any non-value-added work," says Frei. "Get rid of synchronous." And if you're not sure what's getting in your employees' way, ask them. "Assume you don't know everything that's draining your team's time or all of the latest tools that could help," writes Frei and Morriss. When you raise the standard on what is considered truly important, you will lower the risk of people feeling overwhelmed, and wondering how what they're working on really has an impact.
"'I want you to do three times as much'" signals that we need to do things creatively and radically differently -- not incrementally," commented Frei. Leverage these unprecedented times to invite your team to generate unprecedented ideas and take unprecedented action toward driving business results. "Make it clear that beliefs and norms have changed, starting with you," she said.
3. Your vision for each employee
By treating each person as their better, future self, you signal "that the future is now." Treat them as if they're already ready -- ready for that stretch assignment, or ready for the critical feedback you've been reluctant to give, or ready to take ownership of an important account. Research shows that high expectations make people feel valued and engaged, and positively impacts organizational performance.
And what do we do if we notice that raising the standards increases the stress for someone? Frei reminds us to respond with "empathy and grace -- which will come back to you manifold, and for everyone else your colleagues touch."