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14 September, 2020

Adopting a Relational Approach to Leading Creative Teams through Anxious Times.

As ecom studio leaders, we cut our teeth on becoming experts at managing disruption, inventing new processes to address an ever-changing business landscape, meeting demands to increase productivity with shrinking budgets with no reduction in quality, and expanding our skills to keep up with the relentless pace of innovation. We learned to eat change for breakfast. And just as the ecom photo studio model was finally enjoying a new level of maturity, mastery and confidence, in walks COVID to throw a wrench into the machine.

Adopting a Relational Approach to Leading Creative Teams through Anxious Times.

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COVID isn’t just another budget reduction, volume change, talent challenge, or resource puzzle, it's ALL OF THOSE THINGS AT ONCE. With bells on.

[As ecom studio leaders] we learned to eat change for breakfast. And just as the ecom photo studio model was finally enjoying a new level of maturity, mastery and confidence, in walks COVID to throw a wrench into the machine.

Frayed Nerves.

COVID is more than just the biggest challenge that our businesses have seen since, well, maybe ever. It’s impact on the financial and physical health of individuals and families—the people who make up your teams—is on a scale no one alive today has experienced before. The potential consequences of the pandemic are unnerving to say the least.

Are the nerves of those on your teams looking a bit frayed? What about yours? My guess is that they are, and that maybe you and, at least some of your team members, are feeling at least some anxiety. Perhaps you may be experiencing that the emotional struggles of those you support are making your job of supporting the needs of the business more difficult.

What We Resist, Persists.

It is easy for leadership to de-prioritize the emotional needs of our teams when there are such serious challenges to the survival of our businesses. It's not because leaders don’t care. Making space for emotions can seem counterintuitive at best and enabling at worst when resources are scarce and there is critical work to do. Whether they are showing it or not, the challenging emotional experiences of the teams you support are in as much need of attention as your strategies for staying in business. Ignoring and dismissing these feelings not only doesn’t make them go away—it has a tendency to make them grow bigger. What we resist, persists.

Whether they are showing it or not, the challenging emotional experiences of the teams you support are in as much need of attention as your strategies for staying in business. Ignoring and dismissing these feelings not only doesn’t make them go away—it has a tendency to make them grow bigger. What we resist, persists.

Digging In.

I recently had an experience that reinforced what I had learned about leading creative teams through years of disruptive change in a fashion ecom photo studio.

My college-aged daughter was facing a very challenging task which demanded that she figure out how to do a whole host of things that she had never done before. As I watched her continue to ignore and procrastinate, too paralyzed by her anxiety to make any headway, my frustration and my anxiety for her grew. Everytime she expressed her worry to me, I would dismiss it, tell her to stop worrying and remind her what she needed to do. From my perspective, the obvious solution to the problem was for her to get over herself and get her butt in gear. The more I tried to steer her away from what she was truly experiencing, the more loudly she justified her fear.

Hear Me Out. Then I’ll Come Along.

A mentor of mine once gave me this most important bit of relationship advice: If you want people to come along with you, you must first meet them where they are.

I had failed to understand what she really needed from me: to be seen and heard. Instead of validating my daughter’s experience, I was killing it, and she wasn’t having it. It was absolutely healthy for her to double down in her determination to get my validation and support as she faced a tough challenge. Pushing my perspective on her without honoring hers only contributed to her stuckness.

The next time the topic came up between my daughter and me, I took a different tact: I didn’t try to fix her, solve her problem or change her perspective.I just listened to her. I validated her anxiety by telling her that it made sense to me why she would be afraid. I listened for as long as she needed her to talk.

And then, like a miracle, she stopped stressing, solved her own problems and got the job done like a boss. Meeting her where she was, and validating her experience helped her to take the next step to where she needed to be on her own.

If you want people to come along with you, you must first meet them where they are.

Lessons Learned.

Think about a time when you felt that your feelings were being dismissed by a loved one, a significant other. (I think we all have had that fun experience!)

Did feeling unseen and unheard make you feel connected with them?

Did it help you feel inspired to work together towards your goal?

My guess is that it did not. My guess is that it made you double down on justifying your experience, and left you feeling misunderstood and resentful to boot.

In my experience as a leader in an ecom photo studio, I learned that this same relationship advice applies.

How Are You, photo by Finn

A Relational Approach.

It's safe to say that just about everyone is feeling especially anxious right now. What I learned is that a relational approach to dealing with the difficult feelings of those we support as they navigate massive change and uncertainty not only co-exists alongside business goals, it supports them. As leaders, we can help our teams navigate their anxiety by validating their experience and acknowledging their needs, even if we can’t provide them with everything they want or need. We can do this while still maintaining expectations that our teams bring their A Game by working in a mature and responsible way.

When those we support feel that we have made space for what they are currently experiencing without judgement, it opens the way for them to be open to ours and those of our company. This is one of the most critical aspects of mutually supportive relationships and one that applies to work relationships as well.

In my experience, not taking this into account, especially during challenging times, contributes to resentment and low morale, which is counterproductive to business needs and a lost opportunity to foster the kind of mutually supportive connection that serves both the individual and the relationship—and that includes the relationship we have with our company.

What I learned [as an ecom photo studio leader] is that a relational approach to dealing with the difficult feelings of those we support as they navigate massive change and uncertainty not only co-exists alongside business goals, it supports them.

Lead by Example. And with Transparency.

We have a tendency to steer others away from talking about the same, uncomfortable feelings that we avoid feeling ourselves. Acknowledging our own feelings of vulnerability is important if we want to support and lead others through theirs. Being transparent with our teams about our own anxiety and how we are working through it in an authentic, relatable way helps create connection through shared reality. It is from a place of shared reality that an action phase for meeting the needs of the business can be launched. It creates a place of support from which we can collaborate and most freely and generously offer our gifts. It says, “We are not alone, we have each other, and we will meet this challenge together.”

It is an especially good time to remember that inspiring through purpose by being a good communicator of the business needs, the plan forward and what is expected of your teams not only benefits the business, it’s a way for your teams to mitigate anxiety through action. And more than ever, meeting exhaustion from stress and constant change with positive feedback, recognition, and appreciation for the ways their contributions positively impact the business can be the gas in the tank that helps people and companies keep going.

[Now] more than ever, meeting exhaustion from stress and constant change with positive feedback, recognition, and appreciation for the ways [your team’s] contributions positively impact the business can be the gas in the tank that helps people and companies keep going.

Creativity not Fear.

I learned the value of curiosity during challenging times. It is an antidote to fear—it literally takes us out of our primitive, fight-flight-freeze part of the brain, which is self-protective, defensive and thinks in black and white terms, and into the part of the brain where creativity lives. Fear and creativity have a hard time co-existing, so involving teams in problem solving to create opportunities for them by calling upon their creativity and becoming authors of progress not only contributes to the needs of the business but can also help teams mitigate anxiety through empowerment.

Fear and creativity have a hard time co-existing, so involving teams in problem solving to create opportunities for them by calling upon their creativity and becoming authors of progress not only contributes to the needs of the business but can also help teams mitigate anxiety through empowerment.
Into Focus, photo by Dylan McLeod

Like a Boss.

I believe that when we demonstrate our concern for others and really listen until they feel understood, we increase the likelihood that they will respond with concern for ours and the business’. This, I am learning, is one of the most critical aspects of mutually supportive relationships. I found in my role that an emotionally supportive, relational approach to managing teams can co-exist alongside expectations that they work to meet the challenges of the business with maturity and personal responsibility. In my experience as a leader, not taking this into account, especially during challenging times, contributes to resentment and misalignment that does not help our efforts as leaders to meet the needs of our business. It amounts to a lost opportunity to foster the kind of mutually supportive connection that serves both the individual and the relationship—and that includes the relationship we have with our company.

I learned that it is from a place of connection and shared reality that we are able to most freely and generously offer our gifts. It is from that place that we can best do what needs to be done. Like a boss.

It is from a place of connection and shared reality that we are able to most freely and generously offer our gifts. It is from that place that we can best do what needs to be done. Like a boss.

Creative Force Blog

How to run a photo studio with lean principles and software tailored for creatives.

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