A lot has happened in the past few years since my book, We’re All in This Together: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust, and Belonging, was first published in the spring of 2020. I completed the manuscript for this book (which was just released this week in paperback) at the end of 2019. I had no idea it would come out amid a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed how we live and work.
I’ve learned a lot about team performance over the past two decades through my research, writing, speaking, and consulting with some of the top companies in the world. And I’ve also learned a great deal over the past two years as we’ve all navigated the challenges of COVID-19. I’ve witnessed first-hand how important and challenging teamwork has been for so many of the people, leaders, and teams I work with.
Within the first few weeks of the pandemic, as we were being asked to stay at home and things were incredibly uncertain and chaotic, everyone from Anderson Cooper to Mike Pence to CEOs of some of the world’s biggest brands were using the phrase, “We’re all in this together.”
Over the next few months, as people were reading my new book and hearing me speak (via my podcast, social media, or virtual speaking engagements) about this idea of all of us being in it together, I started to have some interesting and challenging conversations. Of the many things I heard people say, share, and ask, one question that kept coming up was, “Are we really all in this together?”
In it Together?
I initially heard this question quite a bit from leaders who were having to make difficult decisions about furloughs, layoffs, and the future of their teams and businesses. They were trying to figure out how to responsibly make these hard decisions and how to authentically communicate with their employees, especially given the intense uncertainty and fear at that time. There also seemed to be some real “winners” and “losers” from an economic perspective, particularly in those early days.
After the brutal killing of George Floyd in late May of 2020 and the profound national and global response to both this horrific tragedy and the systemic nature of injustice…discussions about racism, inequality, social justice, and more became front and center in just about every aspect of society, including and especially the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.
I continued to have hard but important conversations with people who earnestly pushed back on the notion of us all being in it together, pointing out that the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, and so many other things were painfully exemplifying the disparities in our country and our world.
As I began to grapple with all of this more deeply, it became clear to me that we’re actually all in the same storm, but we’re in different boats.
And while this is always true to some degree, during what we’ve all experienced over the last couple of years, it’s become increasingly more important to reckon with this fundamental dynamic—same storm, different boats.
Of course, it’s natural and understandable for us to focus on what’s going on in our own boat, especially if we’re taking on water, there are some real issues with our stability, or we don’t feel safe.
And, paradoxically, one of the most important things we can do during a storm is to look up and see what’s going on in the boats of the people around us—so we can both ask for and offer support as we all try to make our way to smoother water.
In thinking about all that has happened over the past few years and reflecting on the many things that I’ve learned through partnering with so many people, leaders, teams, and organizations as they’ve been navigating the various challenges of the pandemic, there are several important themes that have emerged from my research and experience during this time.
1) We’re stronger and more resilient than we realized
If I had told you at the end of 2019, “Here’s what’s about to happen over the next few years…,” you probably wouldn’t have believed me. And even if you somehow trusted that what I was saying was true, you most likely would’ve thought that there’s no way that you, your family, and your team could have continued to function in an effective way.
And yet, here we are. Battered, bruised, and weary…but still going, despite all the change, pain, disruption, loss, uncertainty, grief, and more that we’ve experienced. This whole thing has been incredibly challenging for just about everyone I know and have worked with, myself included. However, it has also taught us so much and reminded us of our ability to adjust, pivot, and persevere, even when things get hard and we don’t think we can keep going.
2) We can’t opt-out of dealing with diversity, equity, and inclusion at work or in society
These issues are challenging, personal, emotional, complex, and they impact each of us differently. For those of us, like myself, as a straight, white, cisgender, American man, who have had the privilege of not often thinking about or navigating issues of race, gender, orientation, and more, there’s been a humbling realization of the differences that our friends, colleagues, and co-workers experience on a regular basis who don’t have the same identity that we do.
If we’re going to create healthy environments that are equitable and ones where people genuinely feel a sense of belonging, we must continue to reckon with these issues—talk about them, deal with them, educate ourselves, understand each other better, and make meaningful changes to how we think, talk, act, lead, hire, make decisions, and operate. I do believe that progress has been made and awareness has been raised…and we still have a lot of work to do on this front.
3) Mental health is as important, if not more so, than physical health
The pandemic and all that we’ve gone through over these past few years have created a global mental health crisis that we’re still in the midst of today. This crisis has clearly impacted certain people and communities more significantly than others but has touched all of us. Each of us has dealt with loss, grief, anxiety, depression, and so much more in the past two years—either directly, with people close to us, and/or with those who are just one or two degrees separated from us.
Thinking about, talking about, and addressing mental health challenges are all fundamental to our personal well-being, as well as the health and success of our teams and organizations. While these issues are personal, they are no longer things we can avoid dealing with in our professional lives. Just as physical well-being has become more of a focus over the past few decades in many organizations and industries, mental and emotional well-being needs as much or more attention, especially these days.
4) Working remotely poses real challenges, but also some opportunities
There are clearly certain things we can do virtually almost as effectively as when we’re in the office. And there are some aspects of working from home that are convenient, efficient, and even enjoyable. However, I think we’ve also realized that so much gets missed when we’re not together, and it’s incredibly difficult to stay connected to one another on a human level when we’re not in the same physical location.
A big part of team performance and company culture comes from us spending time together in the same room, having shared experiences, and being able to look each other in the eye and have in-person conversations. Figuring out how we can stay connected to one another in an authentic and meaningful way while working remotely isn’t easy, but it’s essential.
This has been challenging throughout the pandemic and will continue to be something to figure out as we get to the other side. We’ll need to be mindful, intentional, and flexible as we navigate this personally and collectively.
5) People, relationships, and team performance are essential
On the one hand, we’ve been physically separated from so many of the important people in our lives and those with whom we work. Yet, paradoxically, we’ve been reminded of our common humanity as we’ve done our best to make our way through the various storms we’ve experienced. Staying connected to one another through all of this has been both more difficult and more important than ever.
The nature of the pandemic and all the other issues that we’ve been grappling with that contribute to disconnection, separation, misunderstanding, isolation, and more have built into them a larger common experience of the fundamental vulnerability of being human.
When it comes right down to it, our success or failure and our experience of not only work but life in general, has a lot to do with the people we interact with on a regular basis.
My baseball coach at Stanford University, Dean Stotz, used to always say to us, “The quality of your life is based on the quality of your relationships.” He was right back then when he said that…and these past two years have reminded us of this important truth.
As challenging as all of this has been and as unknown as what lies ahead may be, if we’re able and willing to lean on those around us, we can remind ourselves that we’re not alone—and even with the difficulties we face and the inherent paradox of all of this, we truly are all in this together.
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