WTF is going on?

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This week I was invited to deliver a talk entitled More Signal, Less Noise at a national financial organization event on the theme of the attention economy. On the surface, the focus was to be on how to communicate effectively with employees in a hybrid environment. But the real topic – the one that is the undercurrent of most of my conversations with executives these days is:

What the f**k is going on?

 Almost three years into an unrelenting pandemic, I think we can all agree this is a very weird time. It’s as if there’s something in the air that’s affecting all of us, but that somehow slips through our hands as we try to put a finger on it. It reminds me of Betty Friedan’s call for us to recognize and address what she dubbed “the problem that has no name”.

What’s clear is that this is a time of paradox.

  • We are exhausted but we can’t sleep.
  • We are gorging on gluttonous consumption of information, yet we feel malnourished from the empty calories of social media and are left always hungry for more.
  • We are feeling overwhelmed by work, yet there’s a widespread feeling of being underwhelmed.
  • We are craving connection, yet complaints of ghosting and relationship breakdown are everywhere.
  • We feel unsafe returning to the office, yet crowds are flocking to airports and concerts in record numbers.
  • We are delighted to finally gather with friends and community, yet we max out quickly, yearning to crawl back into our safe cocoons.

From my vantage point through my coaching, training and consulting practice, my sense is that this paradoxical time is the result of three levels of forces that are having an exponentially compounding effect: psychological, social and technological disruption. For what it’s worth, here’s what I’m seeing in the zeitgeist right now, and my best understanding of how it’s affecting organizations (I’ll follow up next week with some suggestions on a path forward).

Psychologically, the pandemic has caused us to be bathing in anxiety for almost three years. We’ve been white knuckling our way through the turbulence and jarring ups and downs of the pandemic for so long that our nervous systems are shot. 

Pile onto that primal-level fear, the constant feeling of threat and anxiety related to the war in Ukraine, global political extremism, gun violence, social reckoning, climate change and $9.00 lettuce…it’s a lot. Add to this stack of destabilization the downright bizarre spectacles on the stages of major institutions. From angry protesters setting up camp in hot tubs outside our Parliament buildings, the former leader of the free world advocating that we inject bleach, to the world’s richest man marching in to buy Twitter while carrying a sink. 

“Normal” has left the building, and it’s not coming back. 

We’ve been through three years of pain and sacrificing so much for a dreaded virus with the prime objective of avoiding it at all costs. It’s now pretty clear that it’s become ubiquitous and it’s only a matter of time until we catch it. This traumatic brew of anxiety, fear, destabilization topped with a dollop of existential dread has come at a high cost of psychological well-being.

There’s a shared experience of defeatism, tinged with feeling disillusioned, distressed and deflated.

The consequence of this protracted destabilization and anxiety is that we’re now operating from our lizard brain. The modes of operation that are accessible to us are: fight, flight and freeze.

What does this fight-flight-freeze pattern mean organizationally? 

  • I’m observing a pattern of heightened conflict and hostility in organizations, often showing up as tensions across departments or divisions. The hot spots are in the fraying of the connective tissue of organizations as well as the feeling that in the remote work setting, some are carrying too much weight and others too little.
  • The dirty little secret in the training world is that the most popular courses these days seem to be on “Civility in the Workplace”. 
  • Leaders are having trouble seeing a future and many have lost the energy and enthusiasm to build.
  • Employees are in “flight” mode – either resigning, “quiet quitting” or reimagining their careers fueled by a searing feeling that you only live once.
  • Despite protestations to the contrary, the reality is that many employees are in a “freeze” mode of paralysis. The hamster wheel is spinning at a fever pitch of emails, Slack messages and endless Zoom meetings, but many executives are left quietly worried about their team’s ability to keep up and deliver the goods. The “outside voice” is that hybrid has been a boon to productivity, but the “inside voice” I’m hearing consistently is one of concern that there are dangerous cracks showing up in the foundation. 
  • Organizations generally seem to be in a holding pattern of treading water. What I hear, particularly among communication leaders, is that the reactive work is on a slow boil, but the higher value proactive and imaginative work has evaporated.

Socially, the structures that are foundational guideposts for our lives have been turned upside down. The profound disruption of the pandemic has led us to a place where we’ve lost the reliable guardrails that we’ve unconsciously relied on to guide how we move through day-to-day life. 

In 2022, we have lost clarity on the basics of life and what they mean. What is school? What is work? What does community mean? Even our fundamental sense of time passing has been scrambled as we walk around in a haze wondering, “What time is it? What day is it?”.

There is a pervasive fraying of our normative social structures, and our culture (or “how we do things around here”) has imploded. This has led to a shared feeling of being profoundly disconnected, unmoored and untethered. 

This disorientation comes at a heavy cost and the invoice being paid is in the form of cognitive overload as we struggle to tentatively feel our way through the collective darkness. Lots has been written about moral distress felt by health care professionals, and more broadly we are exhausted by trying to figure out decisions on what used to come second nature – how to show up at a social gathering, how to greet a person we just met and how to forge sustaining relationships in community and at work. 

What does this fraying of social norms mean organizationally?

  • The presenting symptom that I see most frequently is that employees are exhausted and running on empty. It’s this paradoxical pattern of being at once overwhelmed and underwhelmed – people are busy, but they lack that delicious feeling of satisfaction in achieving a task or completing a job well done. 
  • The low-grade anxiety coursing through our veins is changing the essential climate of the workplace. Everyone seems stressed, twitchy and easily distracted – bleary eyed and numbed out on mindless scrolling and the reflexive search for the next dopamine hit from an incoming text or social media “like”.
  • The ugly shadow of learned helplessness is on the rise, whereas the spark of intrapreneurship has sadly been snuffed out of many ambitious, passionate contributors.
  • Worlds are shrinking rather than expanding. Employees and leaders are doubling down on working within their comfort zones which is calcifying silos and causing worrisome breakdowns in strategic alignment and coherence across organizational functions.
  • The psychological drain of the current moment is exacerbated by the social unmooring. This leaves an employee sentiment of heightened demands coupled with heightened impatience. The balance of power has shifted to employees, and it seems that neither employees or leaders quite know what to do with it. In the context of the pandemic’s instability and financial uncertainty, this polarization between employee demands and employer offerings is leading to conflict, alienation and resignations.
  • Many organizational interventions aimed at trying to improve staff morale and engagement are backfiring badly. There is widespread cynicism and eye rolling in response to free coffee days, “forced fun” and most of all the weaponization of “resilience”. 
  • There is a generalized rise in organizational “churn” – that is, meetings, analyses, reports and more meetings to try to figure out the fundamental anchors of a business’ mode of operations. While most in the workplace complain they have no time, the reality is that enormous swaths of time are being invested in non-generative work that is the consequence of putting a finger in the dike of weakened social and cultural norms.

Finally, technologically, the relentless increase in the volume and velocity of information raining upon us across our personal and work lives has outpaced our mental and emotional ability to keep up. We have all become conditioned by addiction to our cell phones and the siren call of the red dot, with its promise of validation that we matter and its underbelly threat of irrelevance or loss of belonging.

There is an increasing body of evidence to support that we are not neuropsychologically adapted to this sudden and exponential explosion in the amount of information and data blasting our way. It’s causing a collective low-grade fever – we never quite seem to feel that we’re okay because none of us has confidence that we’re keeping up on all the messages urgently calling for our attention.

We are certainly in the age of the attention economy, but there’s more granularity required to truly understand its impact. This is also an age of socially engineered distraction and disinformation – dimensions that compound our collective sense of destabilizing anxiety and exhaustion.

Our sense of discernment has been dulled, and we have trouble distinguishing between high quality information and noise. We are caught in a futile spiral of reaching for the reflexive comfort of entertainment and stimulation from our phones, a short-term remedy that only serves to worsen our feeling of overload and alienation. While on the surface this pattern seems foolish, it is normalized and codified by our cultural norms. It’s now often considered weird, or downright irresponsible to go for a walk without being tethered to a cell phone.

Our frayed nervous systems and overloaded minds are corroding our ability to concentrate. People regularly complain that they can’t make it through reading a novel or finishing a movie. We turn to bite-size snacks of entertainment on TikTok or Instagram and the cycle of stimulation, addiction, overwhelm and anxiety continues.

What does this information overload mean to organizations?

  • Organizations have increased rather than resolved what Cal Newport has dubbed the “hyperactive hive mind” approach to knowledge work. This is the systemic reliance on a bombardment of email, instant messages and Slack posts which have had the unintended consequence of conditioning employees to stay in a perpetual state of distraction. 
  • The average employee checks email 36 times an hour. This constant task switching comes at a heavy cost of cognitive overload and the sense of a formally sanctioned organizational system of distraction and superficial work. The problem of cognitive overload has been dramatically exacerbated by our current reliance on Zoom as our brains struggle to fill in the blanks of body language and subtle cues that we strain to read through the screen. 
  • There is early evidence that the number of working hours has gone up through remote work, but the number of hours spent trying to keep up on email and meetings has risen faster. The net result is more tired employees and very often less productivity.
  • Many organizations lack maturity in their management systems to understand and maximize performance in this technologically mediated landscape. There is a general pattern of confusing activity for results – employees are exhausted by emails and back-to-back meetings, yet they are often discouraged by the lack of meaningful impact or results.
  • Organizations face a universal struggle to reimagine the way in which they communicate and connect with employees. Generally, there is a gravitational pull toward tactics and (ironically) to technological solutions to the problem of overload to the expense of more fundamental questions related to effective messaging, employee experience and project management practices. 
  • Many organizations are stuck in an information dissemination rather than a sense-making approach to communication. I’m struck at how often it becomes clear that executives are spending precious time in long meetings, but don’t have a common understanding of the “thing” they’re talking about – this leads to frustration, misalignment and often significant conflict.
  • The ability to do deep work has been dangerously curtailed. Every week I hear executives tell me that they have no time to think. Many have confided that they have teams of dozens of employees or more and don’t know what they do all day because the executive is barely keeping up with the crushing pressure of a non-stop overflowing inbox.
  • Employees and leaders in particular are now information rich and meaning poor – they have lost sight of the North Star purpose of their work and in many cases the fire in the belly – the flame of caring and striving has been dimmed and, in some cases, all together extinguished. 

It’s a hell of a time to be a student of organizational performance and communication. But just as there are definite observable patterns of dysfunction, there are also clear paths to finding clarity through this chaos. Next week, I’ll follow-up with a post on my top five recommendations for moving through these challenging patterns into practical action. 

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Dear Change Leader,
I’m sure you’ve read all the articles warning that 70% of changes fail – but don’t panic. That statistic has been largely discredited, and I’m sure you’ve totally got this.
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