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  • Jill Helmer

Leading Saturated Sponges

Chances are in the middle of this pandemic you have been doing the dishes more frequently. I pulled out a new sponge from the packaging yesterday to assist me in this process. The new sponge was perfectly formed, clean and ready to do it’s job. When I soaked it in the pot I was scrubbing, it quickly absorbed the hot water and allowed me to perform my task. 


Many years ago, Daryl Conner’s book, “Managing at the Speed of Change” sat on my bookshelf. One of my key take-aways from the book was the concept of a saturated sponge. Conner spoke of organizational change as a pitcher of water and employees as the sponge. His message was that the key to managing organizational change depended on how much and how quickly you could get your employees to absorb it. Every employee had a different saturation level walking in the door each day. From a distance, every sponge (i.e. employee) looked the same. As leaders, we expected to walk up to the sink and find the sponge ready to do it’s job. Instead, we often walked up to the sink and found the sponge was already soaked.


Let’s take a minute and think about the saturation level of our employees at this moment in time. Our front line heroes…I can’t even begin to articulate how saturated they are, and for the purposes of this post, all I can say is thank you. This post is more applicable to your non-front line employees, regardless of the industry you are in and the company you are leading, because their sponges are pretty saturated, too. They are saturated with the concern over the health of their families and how to protect them. They are saturated with the news that is coming at them every day and the changing personal guidelines on how to keep themselves healthy. They are saturated with economic worries as tough calls are made in your companies about how to weather this storm of reduced business activity. They are saturated with facilitating remote learning while finding ways to keep their kids away from their Zoom screen during work meetings. And they are saturated with the worry about what life returning to normal looks like…what permanent scarring will appear on their families, their financial future and their way of life.


Here’s the kicker: this saturation level applies to everyone you are leading, and it applies to you, as the leader, too. We could assume that we all entered into this pandemic as sponges that were new and ready to absorb, much like the one I pulled out yesterday. But you and I know that is not the case. Many of us or our employees entered this time period already worn down by family issues, individual health concerns, or struggles with addiction, anxiety or depression. Our sponge was already wet when this whole thing started a month ago. And every day the world has been throwing more water at it. What do we know about a sponge when you keep throwing water at it? The water just rolls off. There is nowhere for it to go.


As you lead your people through these uncertain times, you are coming into contact with many saturated sponges. You have a sense of why the sponge is oozing, but on the wrong days, you are frustrated that it isn’t performing as you hoped. You are looking for employees who can quickly absorb the hot water and allow your business to perform the task at hand. I imagine you aren’t finding many of them available at this moment. Remember that the saturation level of the sponge, at that given point in time, has a lot to do with how much it can absorb and how well it can work. During these times, you will not be able to completely dry out the sponge, but your sensitivity to it’s absorption level will help. Your efforts to over communicate and reinforce clarity, while you continue to check in and problem solve with your people will go a long way in getting ALL of YOU through this time period. Keep in mind is that your people will remember how you lead them through this time. Trust and loyalty to you and your organization will increase during these challenging times or it decrease. Your sensitivity to the absorption level of the sponges can help you build trust or destroy it.


If you would like more information on Leading in Uncertain Times, please check out my articles from the past several weeks: “Leading in Uncertain Times” (March 16); “The Four Ps for Managing in Uncertain Times” (March 23); “Navigating the Valley of Despair” (March 31); and “Game on…Week 4 (April 6).

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