Emotional Debt is the Boogeyman in your Corporate Closet
A few weeks ago, I received emails from my kiddos’ school, gearing up for the Fall school year, and honestly just thinking about doing that again gave me a borderline mental breakdown and exhaustive episode. Just. Thinking. About. It.
I am generally a glass half full person, but even I find myself having days of empath-induced existential crisis about what might be coming and about the slog that has been the past year+. Thinking about doing any version of that for another cycle is simply daunting on my worst days.
I bring this up first to normalize. Things are hard right now and we all have our days and we all require probably more self-care than we are comfortable admitting — certainly more than we are comfortable practicing. I say that as someone who holds certifications in healing and self-care practices. It is hard time to be a human right now.
The second reason I bring this up is, if you are trying to get anything done in business right now, you would be wise to acknowledge the context of emotional burden that literally everyone feels — the ingredients may vary slightly, but the commonality is a collective tiredness. According to the O.C. Tanner Institute, the burnout rate among employees is at an all-time high of 82% (Global Culture Report, 2021). We have already tapped into and used up much of most people’s energy reserve over the last two years, and most people are simply running on empty.
There is a concept called organizational debt which is, according to startup guru Steve Blank, “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup.” This debt eventually catches up with teams if not relieved or addressed. (This is the human version of technical debt for those of you familiar.) And while this is specifically referencing startups, in Covid times, every company has a start up element to it. We have never lived through this before and organizations all have a mandate to adapt to new ways of working, new ways of serving customers and developing new products to achieve their mission.
The pandemic has created immense amounts of organizational as well as what I call emotional debt Emotional debt is the buildup of emotions that have come with living in a very unpredictable time in life and work. Because of the dynamics of work from anywhere and hybrid setups, the lines between work and life are inextricably blurred. Many of us work at home, maybe amongst our family members, while many are discussing what used to be “personal” topics like racial equity and healthcare decisions as part of our regular workplace experience. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy you may notice that most of what is going on right now impacts people at the lowest parts of the pyramid — deficiency needs. In other words, with these distractions in place, you have zero chance of expecting focus or motivation from your employees on your latest transformation or change initiative. They are in survival mode. You should care about emotional debt because it will slow, if not impede, anything you are trying to achieve in business right now and probably for the next year to come.
The impacts of your organizational and emotional debt can’t be ignored when asking your team to do something new, or hard. Even something small or “easy” could be a breaking point for your teams right now, if these debts are not taken into consideration.
Here are some numbers to back that up. Companies with strong cultures are creating an environment with little organizational or emotional debt. Here is how those companies faired when compared to those who do not invest in the culture and care for their teams:
What you can do about emotional debt:
1. Eliminate the unnecessary. Just take a moment to assess whether or not the thing you need to get done really has to happen right this minute. I should call out here assessing this fully requires looking at real data, not just subjective decisioning. What data shows that now is the time? If it must be now, is there anything else in flight that can be postponed to make room for this effort?
2. Plan for more time than you think it will take — more time to plan, more time to implement. Whatever change you need to launch, just give it more time. Aggressive deadlines just simply won’t happen and driving your employees into the ground to try to make it so will only cost you talent.
3. Double down on your change strategy and change management investments. Pre-Covid I have to say it was an uphill battle to convince directors and execs to invest in change management — let alone change strategy — despite clear data showing the exponential ROI. If you must make changes expediently, the fastest, best way to get there is by leveraging experts in this area.
4. Leaders listen for answers. Assume you know nothing (and with all respect none of us have been through this exact scenario before). Come to town halls or meetings with no preconceived solutions in mind. Your teams will tell you everything you need to know about what needs to be addressed to support their motivation, health and wellbeing if you ask them directly. Then address what they bring up — no matter how crazy it might seem to you. If those needs are handled, they will handle your bottom line for you.
Emotional debt in an org is a very addressable problem. All that is required is a little acknowledgement and some focused, intentional organizational TLC. Good luck out there my friends!