When We Hit the Wall

Even when we feel fatigued by the deepest challenges, we can find a way to elevate ourselves.

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By Gary Burnison

It was years ago, and the concert hall was packed. I had a good seat with a clear view of the stage as the pianist—the star of the show—began to play flawlessly. Then, halfway through Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, he suddenly stopped.

His hands froze on the keys, and he bowed his head. He turned to us and said, “I don’t want to play in public anymore.” This world-renowned performer had simply hit the wall. Whatever the reason, he could not play one?…?more?…?note.

We know what this kind of fatigue feels like. It’s been building since the start of the pandemic. As we embark upon a new year, in many ways we are still dulled to 2020—our minds, our bodies, and our spirits.

In the fog of fatigue, it’s almost impossible to have perspective. What we’re facing often feels bigger in the moment than when we look back on it. We need to take ourselves out of this moment and focus on the horizon. Imagine February 2023—what would we want to see? How do we see the world then? How do we see ourselves? What do we want to accomplish—and who do we want to become? These questions create an instant perspective shift.

Even when we feel fatigued by the deepest challenges, we can find a way to elevate ourselves—above and beyond today—with the knowledge that there is a better tomorrow. Here are some thoughts:

The force of will

The healthcare company that set up a daycare center for employees within 72 hours. The insurance company that transitioned to a 100 percent virtual workforce within one week. There are countless examples of accomplishments during the early days of the pandemic that would have been considered impossible at any other time. Mark Royal, PhD, an expert in motivation and engagement in our Advisory business, calls them “successes through force of will”—energy expended in an intensive burst, like a sprinter in a 100-meter dash. We learned that this crisis isn’t a sprint. It’s an Ironman Triathlon. And while a vaccine is now becoming available, we’re still in the ocean in the grueling swim event. To battle fatigue, we need to tap our intrinsic motivation to marshal energy. In a recent conversation we had, Doug Charles, the president of our Americas region, picked up on this metaphor. “If you’re feeling fatigued at mile 24 of the marathon, you’re near the finish line. You tell yourself, ‘I’m almost there—I can do this.’ But if you’re only at mile four when you feel fatigued, you have a real problem. You are nowhere near the end. So what do you do? One antidote to create a sense of hope is establishing incremental steps and goals along the way.” Incremental accomplishments multiply energy!

Hope and humor

My dog, Charlie, has become my best friend during these days of working at home. But during a Zoom interview I had with a candidate recently, Charlie wasn’t having it—and wanted her say. She started barking and just wouldn’t stop. “I’m sorry, I have a problem,” I told the candidate. I tried to juggle it all—hosting the meeting, keeping Charlie at bay, and calling my daughter from my cell phone (of course she didn’t answer). So I relented and texted?…?and waited. Finally, my daughter stuck her head in the doorway, reminding me that she was “online right now” with her classes. I pointed to my computer screen and told her, “I’m tied up, too. Can you please see what Charlie wants?” (Charlie was hungry, as it turned out.) By this time, the interviewee had gone from a polite smile to laughing out loud. “Sounds like my house. I feel right at home,” the candidate told me. Obviously, this was unscripted, but it sure was relatable. Adding a dose of authenticity and levity can alleviate even the most serious situations, according to David Dotlich, PhD, a CEO and board advisor and a senior leader in our Consulting business. As he said, “When people can relate and feel compassion, they connect and become energized.” Where there’s humor, there’s hope.

No matter where or how we perform—on a stage, in a plant, or in a virtual work environment—we need to ask ourselves: Are we playing only for ourselves or for others? The more we do for others, the more we take ourselves out of this moment and elevate the future—we rise above.

Even when we feel fatigued by the deepest challenges, we can find a way to elevate ourselves.