A few days ago, before the mob had stormed and ransacked the U.S. Capitol, when our only disruptive crisis was a deadly pandemic, I told my publisher and editor that January 2021 already seems as bad as December 2020. Everyone is discouraged. No one wants to do anything. That worries me.
“Ennui,” he said. “You’re talking about ennui.”
I looked it up.
Ennui (on•wee), meaning a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.
Yes, that’s it exactly. Terrible events don’t obey our calendar. A “third wave” made early 1919 worse than late 1918. And 1944 was somehow worse than 1943. Maybe 2021 will be worse than 2020, I said. Then what?
In June, Alex Clark in the Guardian said people were already “flattened out” by the “psychic assault of the pandemic.” He said the boredom most of us suffered from was more complex, “more of a hotchpotch of feelings: a base layer of fear and powerlessness, perhaps, with top notes of instability, exhaustion, foreboding and sadness.”
Flattened out. That’s the feeling. Boredom, plus loneliness, plus fear, plus . . . .
Who today isn’t completely sick of being told 2020 was awful but 2021 will be better. Really? The virus will know it’s a new year and retreat as quickly as it attacked? The whipped-up mobs will disperse and go home?
Last month in the Harvard Business Review, business psychologist Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg warned that “Patience with feel-good language like ‘we need to pull together’ or ‘we will get through this’ is now close to zero.”
Stop with the fuzziness, she advised leaders. Instead, give yourself and your team concrete goals to achieve in 2021.
That will cultivate resilience. Resilience is the feeling that obstacles, no matter how big, can be overcome. Without resilience, people feel powerless. Obstacles become showstoppers. Teams stand still.
Along with cultivating resilience, inject energy, she said, “because, frankly, the second wave we’re in is not exciting at all. People report feeling bored, disconnected, and unnerved.”
How to inject energy? Do stuff. Share success stories, divide long projects into sprints, and talk more, Dr. Wedell-Wedellsborg said. “But also shortening endless zoom meetings, cutting tumbleweed projects, and allowing constructive conflicts and honest feedback in your teams. How you do it matters less. That you do it matters immensely.”
If you’re leading a compliance team, what does all that mean?
Start with virtual whiteboard sessions. Identify new challenges for compliance — closed borders, travel restrictions, remote working, video-only training, budget pressures, urban violence, supply chain dislocations. Invite ideas to meet those challenges. Pick the best ones. Be specific. Be concrete. Write down step one, step two, step three. Set milestones and metrics to measure progress. Above all, raise the tempo.
Everyone hopes vaccines will accomplish what lockdowns, quarantines, and border closings didn’t. That herd immunity is real and coming soon. And that our fragile Republic will survive another “peaceful” transfer of power.
But let’s be honest. Most of us today feel some combination of sad, mad, fearful, jangled, exhausted — flattened out.
Ennui is closing in.
But we know what to do.
We fight back. That may be the only way to make this year better than 2020.