I started a company determined not to be “that boss.” I wanted to work with people I actually knew and cared about, and I wanted them to be happy in return. Unlike some of the cold, clueless managers I had over the years, I intended to be there for my team—tuned into their challenges and committed to building something together.
Then, this fall, it happened. One morning, after months of working remotely, I felt like I had to drag myself to my keyboard. That whole week I was feeling uninspired, disengaged, even a little antisocial. By the time Friday came around, it was clear: As a leader, I had officially checked out.
As the crisis and remote work stretches into its second year, we hear plenty about the challenges of keeping employees engaged. But leaders tap out too. And when we do, the impact reverberates through the entire organization. This isn’t meant to be a pity party for bosses. But it’s something that we need to talk about, because I know I’m not alone.
Why leaders are checking out
Leaders tuning out isn’t new, exactly. But the disruption of the last several months has exacerbated the conditions that lead to burnout and mental and emotional checkout.
For starters, we’ve lost our natural feedback loop. Zoom keeps us connected, yes, but it’s no substitute for interactions in-person. When we’re reduced to heads in squares on monitors, we lose the rich information that comes from social cues and context. It’s harder to tell what’s really happening—harder to get motivated to act, harder to lead with conviction. Tunnel vision sets in. I know there’s a whole army working out there, but I’m only speaking to a handful of generals, their managers.
Leading from a screen isn’t exactly what many of us signed up for, either. Studies show that extroverts are more likely to hold leadership roles, and for good reason: we’re hardwired for it. Extroverts’ brains have a more sensitive dopamine system, which heightens the rewards of social interaction and attention. But group sessions don’t have the same energy when they’re mediated by technology. If in-person gatherings are like oxygen to us as leaders, for the last several months, we’ve been holding our breath.
Worst of all, the remote work era has cut us off from moments of organic interaction. Before, even if my day was scheduled with back-to-back meetings, there would be spontaneous conversation in the elevator or break room. Throughout the day there were opportunities to relate to my team, not just as their boss, but as a human being. These days, when we’re perpetually online, it’s easy to feel like our humanity has been stripped out of our work experience, leaving just endless to-do lists.
How to know you’ve checked out
These pressures add up—and slowly, at first. In fact, you might not even notice initially. For me, it was most obvious in meetings. I was less patient and curt, cutting conversations short and rushing through the agenda. Worst of all, I wasn’t curious about my team’s lives anymore. Somewhere, between the back-to-back Zoom meetings and the monotony of lockdown, I lost sight of what my purpose was in the first place.
This is bad enough under normal conditions. But when you’re leading a company through a time of crisis, checking out has serious consequences. As leaders we set the tone of the business. Studies have shown that 70% of an employee’s motivation is influenced by their manager. If you aren’t engaged, it’s easy for your team to check out too.
Moreover, this is a moment that requires hyper-engagement: The rules of the game are changing overnight, requiring businesses to adapt and pivot with an unprecedented level of agility. In a crisis, our teams rely on us for clear, frequent, and candid communication, so flying on autopilot isn’t an option.
Worse still, when I started checking out, I noticed my confidence taking a big hit. Cut off from contact, and emotionally removed, I started second-guessing my decisions. This type of leader stasis only feeds a vicious cycle and leaves the company rudderless precisely when it needs strong direction.
How to realign on your purpose
For me, there’s one piece of troubleshooting advice that applies remarkably well to leadership: Try a hard reboot.
It may sound counterintuitive, but if you’re feeling like you may be checking out, let yourself check out completely. Take some time off to get clear on what’s really going on. After all, a big part of the issue may simply be burnout after a year of endless obstacles. By stepping away, you should be able to separate burnout symptoms from the checkout symptoms.
Moreover, being able to detach from work makes us more resilient in the face of crises and more productive when we get back to work. In fact, working long hours without a proper vacation has disastrous effects on work performance. Even a short weekend getaway is enough to help us recover from work stress. Granted, this year getting my “holiday on” took a little work. But over the winter holidays, I detoxed from my devices, read voraciously, and took an online philosophy course. Whatever your definition is of a staycation, just get away from your desktop and give yourself time to recharge. From there, lean back in, find out what fuels you as a leader, and double down.
For myself, at a deep level, I need to know the people I work with. So these days, I’m scheduling unstructured one-on-one meetings with every single member of my team. Last week I met with one of my new engineers. No agenda; no talking points. But I learned he has a three-year-old and heard he splurged on some running gear with a holiday bonus. I hope he left knowing something about me and, well, that I care about him.
Equally critical: Empower your colleagues to call you out and call you back in. When you’re the boss, your team may be tempted to let you slide for missing a deadline or ignoring emails. Don’t let them. Provide channels for candid feedback, and listen up.
My team gives me 360-degree feedback every year. This time around, I heard it loud and clear. I’d been missing subtle clues in the remote landscape. By imposing my decisions instead of consulting with the team, I was eroding the safe environment I want to maintain. I left the feedback session chastened, ready to do better, and genuinely grateful that my team told it to me straight.
Underlying all these approaches is the importance of tapping into self-awareness and emotional intelligence as a leader. Your business acumen may be top-notch, but this is a moment when larger situational awareness—of your own mental state and that of those around you—is just as critical. Like a compass, emotional intelligence can guide you to better assess what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, how people around you are affected, and what you can do about it. Steering a company through a pandemic isn’t easy. But while we’re puzzling over how to inspire employees in a remote environment, it’s important not to overlook our own engagement, or lack thereof. Staying checked in as a boss is really the only way to find a way forward for everyone.
So, how do you know when you’re getting it right? Late last week, I had a call with an employee. From the first hello I knew something was wrong. But just as importantly, I knew that I cared. I was listening, feeling, and responding—the parts of taking up the wheel that make being a leader worthwhile.