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  • Jill Helmer

Navigating the Valley of Despair

Updated: Jun 27, 2020

It’s been a long three weeks…would you agree? We first started out with a 14 day quarantine from COVID-19 and did our best to plan around it. (i.e. uninformed optimism.) Then the two weeks became four with the idea of our country opening back up by Easter floating around. Medical experts and economists went back and forth about the likelihood of that date for a few days as the pandemic spread and the death toll climbed. The result being that our social distancing guidelines were extended until the end of April (i.e. informed pessimism ). As the impact of these national guidelines spread today, states followed suit. Our state placed an “indefinite” time period on the closure of schools and non-essential businesses. And with that action, I felt a collective slip into the lowest part of the graphic, the Valley of Despair.

As a young consultant, my work was often attached to big change management projects. Some were technology implementations like SAP and others were large scale mergers and acquisitions. Regardless of what the change was, I saw this graphic play out again and again. There was the optimism of the beginning and the feeling of…we can do this…it won’t be so bad. This was followed by the first reports of danger…either the technology was not working or in the case of a merger the initial set of resulting layoffs. After the first reports of danger and personal impact, you could slowly watch people slip into the Valley of Despair. This was the gray, foggy period of time where the employees were slugging through with no expectation that things were going to get better and only the hope that things were not going to get much worse.

While there is no way to compare a major business change to what we are experiencing with COVID-19, the emotional cycle of change follows the same pattern. As a leader, you need to be aware that your people will most likely slip further down this curve as this week goes on; as a leader, you need to be aware that you will most likely be slipping, too.

So what can you do?

Step 1 is to be aware of your own emotions. It is tough to a lead a team during the most routine of times, and the time period we are experiencing is anything but routine. Give yourself some grace and do your best to take care of you during this time period. I started week one by telling you about the importance of self care; it was important then but it is critical for you now.  (reference Leading in Uncertain Times)

Step 2 is to be present and transparent. While you can not be physically present with most of your workforce right now, you can be present through daily communications. A daily check in with your team members is essential. When you are communicating with them individually or as a team, it is important to name what is happening. Tell them what you know about the business impact of the virus. There is not an employee in your organization that doesn’t understand that tough calls will need to be made based on the loss of business you are experiencing. And if everyone knows that, why avoid the subject? Allow your employees to ask you questions, and answer them candidly. They will appreciate you telling them what you know, even if they don’t like the content of the answer.

Step 3 is to be a genuinely human. As people slip further into the Valley of Despair, they are scared. They are living in fear of the physical impact of this virus on their loved ones, while they are experiencing the psychological impact of this virus on all of us. They are frazzled by balancing the demands of their family and their work-life…now intertwined like never before. They are worried about what will happen to them when the company has to make difficult decisions. They are overwhelmed by all of it. Too often when we find someone who is completely overwhelmed with issues we can’t fix, we have a really hard time looking them in the eye. Genuine humanity right now requires us to truly ask how someone is doing and patiently listen as they answer us. It requires us to not try to solve their problems or downplay them, but to just genuinely care that they exist. 

The Valley of Despair is followed by Informed Optimism. For us, that will be when the peak of the virus is behind us and when we can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This is still a number of weeks away, if all goes perfectly. Can your business tolerate its employees slugging through the gray zone for another four, five or six weeks? I know that answer and so do you. Maybe a better question to ask you is how you want to be seen as a leader during this time period? Do you want to be the leader who is hiding out or do you want to be the leader who is showing up? Do you want to be the leader who is making an impact on the human and the business or do you want to be the leader who is slugging through beside the troops? Do you want to be the leader who leads the troops out of the Valley of Despair and emerges stronger as a result? I know that answer and so do you. 

I wish you much health and success as you lead your teams forward. Godspeed.


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