“I don’t comprehend it,” a CEO remarked. “Things are looking up for our business. We should be excited that our usual lives are nearing. But wherever I look, I see individuals acting erratically, almost like workplace road rage.”
After two years of pandemic-induced hyper-alertness, tiredness, regression, lulls, and eventual recovery, we are now entering a new psychological phase. The prevalence of the psychological reaction known as splitting is why I name this period “the Big Split.”
Splitting is a mental defense mechanism that helps us to handle harsh emotions by thinking in black and white. It’s easy to categorize them as “with us” or “against us.” This relieves us of the weight of facing our own flaws and mistakes, while also allowing us to label our opponents as evil without subtlety or common ground. It’s a means of avoiding overload or burnout by categorizing and simplifying.
So this phase is difficult and conflictual. Many people are behaving out because they feel trapped in a poisonous stream of mental and behavioral conflict. Stereotyping, bigotry, and self-righteousness exacerbate everyday conflicts. “We’re in this together” has been replaced by “We’re back on our own.”
Signs of the Big Split are everywhere once you look. As the pandemic’s “shared enemy” fades, employees vie for status, engage in power battles, and experience relationship problems. Record numbers of individuals are quitting good employment just to “make a change” and “start a new chapter.” Many people desire to take control again and prioritize their own needs. “I have sacrificed a lot to keep my firm running,” one executive acknowledged at a management offsite. To be honest, I expect something now.
In contrast, leaders that ignore or ignore the Big Split’s destructive potential risk losing ground and stagnation.
The Big Split
Primarily, leaders must recognize the Big Split as a mental battle. So many pressure cookers sprang open at once. Intense sentiments of unfairness and a scramble to fill the emotional void left by years of constraint lie behind it.
Our energies surged in March 2020, when the pandemic emergency became obvious. In this period, leaders become their best selves. Teams naturally bonded and became very productive.
People were exhausted, lost their sense of purpose, started arguing over trivial issues, and neglected their relationships. Or they denied themselves fundamental necessities like good habits, exercise, and sleep.
It was then time to recuperate and get out of the funk. We shifted the focus from crisis management to crisis resolution. During this time, we witnessed friends, family, and coworkers embrace the new future.
But the sluggish recuperation taxed our fortitude. Many expected the crisis to last a year, but it lasted two. So, for many of us, the stages began to recur. It was impossible to tell the difference between 2020, 2021, and 2022, as portrayed in popular memes. Many leaders and their teams battled to regain enthusiasm and performance. People lost hope that things would ever change. “Why bother?” I heard on numerous teams. We can do this anyway.”
Many of the unpleasant feelings endure as the pandemic progresses. It’s no secret that isolation erodes connections and creates a new social discomfort.
Instead of a peaceful conclusion, we’re dividing. People, corporations, parties, and even nations acting for wealth or glory seem to have flourished in the aftermath. The epidemic has no mastermind or villain. It’s a catastrophe that affects us all. But after two years of feeling helpless, our minds choose to categorize everything into “good” and “bad.” As a result, the enemies are now human, not viral, and battles seem personal and sinister.
Taking the Big Split
The objective for leaders is to grasp that this phase is not one of communal relief and happy reunion, but one of tension and contention.
This phase is about managing conflict as much as it is about managing psychological crises. This relates to your individual conduct, your team’s dynamics, and your overall stakeholder connections.
Prioritize your own triggers.
Self-awareness and self-regulation are critical to deconstructing splitting. Acknowledging when you’re separating, and what causes you to act out of character, is a good starting step.
What to look for in a hint Rethink your outlook on others, projects, and yourself if you are certain that you are right and everyone else is wrong. As a test, consider these questions:
- Do you feel that people are either for or against you, regardless of their arguments?
- Do you easily devalue and categorize others?
- Do you think people around you are either inept or unsung heroes?
Remember that a few incidents of “bad behavior” does not make someone a “bad agent.” Abandon absolutes and categorical thinking. Refusing to divide preserves subtleties that can improve strategy, processes, and team culture. As a leader, you must pay attention to the subtleties of communication and the unspoken and undone.
You should also be aware of your reaction when confronted with splitting behavior. Remember that people often target your position, not you as a person. Recognizing criticism will keep it from eroding your stability and self-worth To get defensive and strike out at your criticism will just prolong and magnify the downward spiral of splitting.
Second, interfere when your teams divide.
We’re all out of practice with social contact, thus the ground rules may need to be reestablished.
People going rogue (“you do your thing, I’ll do mine”), professional disagreements evolving into personal hostility (“I don’t trust her”), and so on. The immature dividing processes we utilize when stressed, fatigued, and drained. An effective strategy to intervene is to point out splitting behavior as it occurs.
“If it weren’t for ‘them,’ we would be able to move much faster,” said one banking executive, referring to other teams’ concentration on risk, compliance, and ethics. The leader took a break after hearing the objections. “We sound like adolescent Let’s not depart till we’ve changed our engagement guidelines and our collaborative approach.” This small act averted a long-term divorce and a festering hurt.
Other conflicts, however, are required to negotiate new work-life balances. These are “mature” divisions, not to be stifled. Face it: everyday leadership is full with opposing opinions such, “I have to express that I truly disagree,” or “If we don’t do this, meaningful change will never occur.” They may excite and raise a group or initiate a fresh debate.
Instead than letting disagreements fester, I’ve seen leaders increase the frequency of team meetings while decreasing their time. This goes against what we’re told to do when we’re fatigued and drained: reduce meetings and give individuals more quiet time. “We drifted too far apart during the pandemic,” one leader explained. We needed a regular routine to bond and keep current.” These quick, intensive contacts offered the crew a daily energy boost without taking up too much time.
Third, strive to re-establish ties.
In times of conflict and uncertainty, people tend to safeguard their own interests and ambitions. But it widens the Big Split. Instead, leaders must act to reunite and reintegrate.
To accomplish so, leaders must first highlight that dividing is normal and that focusing time and resources on underlying disputes is acceptable. Managing disagreements and finding ways to reunite and reintegrate is now the core of leadership. “I have never needed my bargaining abilities as much as now,” a leader said. It’s as if the epidemic has hampered our capacity to declare, “Enough is enough.”
Second, leaders must give shared perspective and mutual support in order to rejoin and reintegrate.
To give perspective, leaders should first completely understand their colleagues, workers, and peers, and then seek long-term and constructive solutions. Some CEOs achieve this by bringing in specialists to discuss current global developments and excite personnel. Others always relate corporate decisions and leadership acts to the company’s or society’s larger mission. Having a common perspective reduces misunderstandings and questions about intentions.
Remember that emotional bonds between coworkers, teams, and stakeholders outlive most other forms of incentive. Setting aside time to speak and share worries, disappointments, and hopes unrelated to daily activities or even job.
So, every time a team meets, a leader asks how they truly feel. Some of the team members were concerned about personal issues such as disease and trauma. Instead of pressing on with the agenda, causing discontent or exhaustion, the leader rescheduled the meeting. Instead, she advised staff to relax with a cup of tea, go for a stroll, phone a friend, or read.
Reunification and reintegration do not imply concessions or leniency. But it may mean not squabbling over the last cent and the last word. Consider the intangible benefits of lasting connections. Illustrating how you must establish common ground even when individuals are pulled in opposing ways.
After the Big Split
After years of speeding through wide open lanes, The Big Split may be only a phase — a spike of annoyance and readjustment as we reengage with “normal” life.
The Big Split may be a more permanent state that tests leaders’ patience and resilience, as well as their teams’ and stakeholders’.
Leaders have been practicing crisis management for a few of years. Our leadership talents are in demand now more than ever. We must also add a new skill – conflict management — to our leadership repertoire.