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Leading by doing: How IBM is helping employees shift from languishing to thriving

May 14, 2021 - 9 min read

Languishing is that middle space of “not ill” but “not well.” Nickle LaMoreaux, the CHRO of IBM, shares how languishing affected her employees and how coaching and other support gave her people the tools to get back to thriving.

If we’re being honest, the past 14 months have left us depleted. Emotional exhaustion, heartbreak, uncertainty, and boredom intruded on almost every aspect of life. Now some of our favorite places are opening back up. Yet, collectively, we’re still stuck with the emotional hangover and not willing to trust this “next normal.”

This feeling of being in between — not depressed, certainly not thriving — has left many of us with what Adam Grant described in his recent NYT article as  “languishing.” As many as 55% of employees are languishing at any time, and many are struggling to name or understand this feeling. 

After a year like the last, it’s hard to wonder, “who’s not languishing right now?” For Nickle LaMoreaux, CHRO of IBM, the impact of languishing was both personal and organizational. Meeting her employees where they are, with open dialogue and flexible support, is helping them all get back to thriving.

Labeling the challenge

For the woman at the helm of a 350,000 person workforce, just putting a label on the feeling of “meh” has been transformational. Being able to create a shared language allows teams and leaders to build a safe space to talk about what everyone has been going through in a way that breaks down barriers.

As a leader, talking about well-being in the workplace opens the door to people being more candid and connecting more openly. It also helps our teams realize that they aren’t alone in feeling this way. When you see how widespread it is, you can see it as an organizational problem not just a personal one, and together, we can figure out how to move out of languishing towards thriving.

Brainstorming ways to become more mentally fit can’t be reserved only for clinical spaces, but rather shared so that we can build stronger bonds with our coworkers and realize that we aren’t going through challenges alone. By sharing a language and terminology around these feelings, we can connect with our communities in a deeper way than ever before. 

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Provide a spectrum of offerings  

When it comes to providing the right mental health support, LaMoreaux says companies often think of employee well-being on two ends of the spectrum — those high-performers who are thriving and those who are in crisis mode. 

However, it is the employees in the middle that are most at risk of sliding toward the lower end of the spectrum to more serious mental conditions.  LaMoreaux said, “By investing in employees who are in the middle, you can keep people out of crisis. You can also make a huge impact on their lives by helping them get back to flourishing. Now I will also say, it’s a lot less expensive to spend time in the middle than it is to manage things once they become a crisis, though that is also very important and needed as well.” 

At IBM, offering tools and resources to support employees in the middle space has made a difference in creating a stronger, more resilient, and productive workforce. These offerings are designed to be both preventative and personalized.

Preventative, rather than reactive, care leads to:

  • Increased performance
  • Decrease in attrition
  • Increase in employer brand loyalty 
  • Decrease in crisis management costs 
  • Decrease in absenteeism and hospital visits

Flexible support meets people where they are. The pandemic shattered the divide between work and home and pushed companies to respond to the fact that everyone has experienced the pandemic and the challenges differently. With a more personalized care approach, IBM has seen 10% less mental-health related emergency room visits, likely due to the uptick in IBMer use of proactive well-being programs. Now that’s something to celebrate.

"The thing that I love about coaching, and we've seen this in the hundreds of IBMers that have gone through BetterUp coaching, is that it gives them the tools to help deal with the current issue, but also then do it themselves the next time. And the time after that. [With coaching], you really are teaching people to fish. And I think that that's why the one-on-one work is a really unique way, and probably the most effective way, to deal with languishing.”

Nickle LaMoreaux VP and CHRO at IBM

Lead with empathy 

When it comes to leading teams through challenging times, empathy is key. Day-to-day activities such as performance conversations still have to go on. Now, LaMoreaux says, leaders can have a more compassionate mindset and  incorporate a position of “how can we help” and “what do you need?” That allows the employee to feel safe in having a real conversation about what is going on for them and allows real collaboration about what to do next. Together, they can get to better outcomes and shared performance goals that wouldn’t otherwise be possible coming from a less empathetic approach. 

It’s important for leaders to remember that you are also human and need to attend to your human needs. We like to think we’re superhuman, or at least appear so, but you lead by example and build trust when you show your humanity to your team and take care of yourself. 

Finally, be brave enough to start the dialogue. Make sure that people know all the resources that they have available to them. When those two things are in place, people will be more empowered to seek the support they need at the right moment in time. 

Bottom line, it’s okay to be languishing — many people in your organization likely are in the middle of it. But we can’t stay there too long. 

The more we can do to help facilitate safe places for them to rediscover their purpose and motivation, the better our workplace cultures and overall productivity will become. At the end of the day, the pursuit of flourishing is a shared goal of employers and employees alike, and it is with personalized and empathetic care that we can achieve this goal.New call-to-action

Published May 14, 2021

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