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Feeling Like you are Regressing, Not Progressing

Many leaders are reporting not just fatigue, but exhaustion these past few weeks. As we move from crisis to crisis, the amount of energy it takes to work and lead has gone up. As Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg pointed out in her HBR post, we might be out of the crisis phase somewhat, but the chronic phase feels worse and sometimes like regression, not progression. We have heard this repeatedly from our clients. So much so, we decided to research it.

There is one scale in the typical questionnaire battery that we use thousands of times a year at CMA that measures one’s response to crises and threats. It is a scale that does have some personality-like components to it, but since it measures motivation, it goes up and down depending on the person’s level of engagement. Sometimes, we have seen this scale go down when a company has been acquired. When you see a team with lower scores here, it communicates the sense that “well, even if I work harder, it probably won’t matter much.” It does not measure perseverance per se, but it measures how much someone thinks redoubling their efforts will help. If your company has just been acquired and you don’t know if you will have a role (“we now have two CFOs and we only need one”) you would score lower on it.

As a firm, anecdotally, we have seen lower scores on this scale in a big way this spring. So, we ran some very basic statistics, comparing about a thousand questionnaires from March through May of this year to the same timeframe last year and to the months at the beginning of the Great Recession. What we found amazed us.

“The current data shows that the population has a much stronger sense that no matter what I do, it won’t help.”

The average on this scale (which ranges from 1-10) for March-May of 2019 was 5.56, with the most common score reported being a 5. Exactly what we would expect over the 1700 people assessed. That same scale from March-May 2020 had an average of 3.76 with the most common score being a 2 over about 800 administrations. So, the average score went from about the 55th percentile (what we would expect, since with a group this large you get the bell-shaped distribution and the average should be close to 50%) to about the 20th percentile. In other words, the current data shows that the population, or at least the 800 we sampled this spring, had a much stronger sense that no matter what they do, it won’t help. That sense of hopelessness, or at least demoralization by current circumstance, is so strong that it shows up across broad swaths of data. What we think of as psychological data, here in the aggregate, is showing us a sociological issue, so we wanted to see if there was a similar effect in the months and years after the stock market dropped in 2008. In no 3-month period between October 2008 and December 2020 did we find any significant differences in the score.

If these past few months feel different to you than any other time in your life – like everything feels heavier – you are not alone.

CMA will be publishing more on this topic, but we wanted to get the message out that if you feel exhausted, going backwards, or if your team members are feeling this, they are in good company. We appear to all be in that boat just now. Personal resilience and team engagement during this time (please see our past blogposts on leading through crisis) seem to not only still be important but may be more important now than during the first phase of the crisis.

By Terence Bostic, Ph.D.