Are you leading a ‘languishing’ workforce?

By Sarah Williment

As leaders we are emerging from one of the most challenging periods within our working lives. Had we ever anticipated a global pandemic on the scale experienced, it would be good to think that we would have given considerably more thought and planning to how best to support our people. Instead, we found ourselves catapulted into what, on a good day, could be described as difficult disruption, and on the worse day, complete chaos. In between, it felt as though we were grappling intermittently with the issues of performance, wellbeing, and new ways of working, if not new to us, very often new to many of our people.


As life starts to return somewhat slowly to something vaguely resembling what we could perhaps start to call a new normality, it is clear to me that the organisational challenges we are now facing are not yet over. The future of ‘how we work’ rather than ‘what work we do’ seems to be still emerging and being shaped by the pandemic as well as what went before.

I came across an article recently from Adam Grant, Organisational Psychologist at Wharton, published in the New York Times entitled “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” The term ‘languishing’ was an unfamiliar one and it piqued my interest.


Grant defines the term as feeling “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.”


I suspect we have all experienced this feeling at various times. And he goes on to suggest that this could very easily be the “dominant emotion of 2021.” Why? Because, let’s face it, we have all battled our way through, to a greater or lesser extent, an extremely long, uncertain and testing period of time – not only from a work perspective but also a time beset with family challenges, illness, loss, and grief, plus the deep frustration at being in lockdown and having our everyday lives severely constrained.


Reflecting on what this sense of ‘languishing’ means to me, I recall one role during my career when I woke every day feeling as though a large black cloud was hanging over my head. Although I would not go quite as far as to say I was suffering some form of depression, it probably came very close. I can look back now and pinpoint the reasons for this – no clear direction, no sense of team or being part of something bigger and meaningful and, without a doubt, absolutely no sense of purpose at all. As a result, I lacked motivation, my enthusiasm had drained away, and I found it increasingly difficult to engage with my work colleagues, all of whom I suspect were occupying a similar state of ‘languishing’ state too.

As a leader, I found myself reflecting on the question of whether I too might now be languishing following an 18-month period shackled to a laptop in my back bedroom, morning, noon, and night?


But I arrived at the conclusion that, despite everything, I actually felt in a reasonable head space.


However, it made me question the extent to which I did or did not have a sense of whether some of my team might themselves be languishing – I wanted to try and gauge where people were at in their lives, and the spaces they might currently be occupying. As effective as technology is in enabling us to communicate with a remote workforce, there seems little, if anything, that fundamentally replaces those truly engaging, ‘watercooler or at the printer moments’ in the office, the in-person one-to-one meetings to check how someone is really doing.


Grant talks about the mental health spectrum – depression through to flourishing; with the definition of flourishing being that true sense of well-being, and in his words having “a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others.” In other words, having a clear sense of purpose. This is what gets most of us up in the morning. Languishing falls somewhere in the middle and is, says Grant, a far more common state than depression and one which may well be a greater risk to our organisations than other mental health challenges – and is harder to identify.


On this basis, this suggests as leaders we need to take this seriously if we are to support our people and achieve the absolute best performance within our teams and organisations.


In our work at Farleigh Performance, we strongly argue the case for clarity of purpose and for shared purpose being key to creating a context within which people can find real connection. By being more purposeful in what we do and how we do it, we can facilitate greater engagement which, in turn, leads to an increased sense of contribution, satisfaction and reward amongst people. Performance follows.


The bottom line here – if we know why we do the things we do then we can talk about it more easily, hold it more gently and drive toward it more forcefully together.


What do I take from this? That we will all, as individual human beings, have our own unique versions of languishing, and all the other points on that mental and physical health spectrum in between. There is a high probability that one of the many impacts of the pandemic is that this ‘state’ of languishing will have been exacerbated. No two members of our workforce will be occupying the same space and given that it is these very people that make up the complex living system that we, as leaders, need to support and engage with, it seems, in this current climate, ever more critical that we take every opportunity to listen, learn and understand the place and space they are currently inhabiting. I suspect I am not alone as a leader in finding it only too easy to get caught up in the constant flurry of daily operational activity and overlook the importance of reminding myself and those around me of why we are here, doing what we do in the way that we do it, i.e., our core purpose.


Myself and my colleagues here at Farleigh Performance are huge believers in Myron’s Maxims, developed by Myron Rogers, a consultant specialising in large scale organisational change and leadership development informed by systems theory. One of these, which is ‘Connect the system to more of itself’ resonates most with me in the context in which I write - thinking about our people, building a deeper, better-informed understanding of their current ‘states’ and considering how we can reconnect and reinvigorate after the huge challenges of the last two years.

I feel drawn to wanting to find ways of reconnecting people within my team both to each other, to our new ways of working, and to our core purpose, as perhaps the most empowering way in which to ensure that everyone has clarity of direction and a sense of meaningfulness in all that they do. This may not, in and of itself, necessarily parachute all those who are ‘languishing’ to ‘flourishing’ overnight but I remain convinced that it will be an incredibly positive step in the right direction.

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