While many of us have worked remotely for years (myself included), for many people, the shift to working while physically distanced from colleagues and managers requires some getting used to. Benefits like wearing pajama bottoms to work and going for a mid-day run can be mitigated by the costs to your motivation, self-confidence, and self-esteem when you no longer hear “you aced it!” from your boss on the walk back from a client meeting, or when you can’t get a high-five in the coffee room from a teammate — or even a smile from the receptionist on your way to the elevator.
Reduced feedback, diminished external encouragement, and decreased interpersonal interaction don’t just take an emotional toll; they can take a toll on our work outcomes as well. As Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says in his TED Talk, “When we make progress and get better at something, it is inherently motivating. In order for people to make progress, they have to get feedback and information on how they’re doing.” And, for many newly remote workers, that’s just not happening often enough — if at all.
And while many leaders are taking steps to improve their remote feedback skills, we each need to take responsibility for developing our own reserves of confidence and motivation to keep us moving forward. “Effective self-motivation is one of the main things that distinguishes high-achieving professionals from everyone else,” professor Ayelet Fishbach writes in her article, “How to Keep Working When You’re Just Not Feeling It.”
Here are three strategies you can use to boost your own motivation and confidence:
Challenge your catastrophic thinking
In my book, coauthored with Sophie Riegel, Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School, and Life, we highlighted two ways of thinking that are the hallmark of catastrophic thinking: overestimating unlikely probabilities and overestimating devastating consequences. In the absence of regular feedback, we can start to make up stories that undermine our self-confidence and security. That can happen in the best of times — and right now is not the best of times.
When you start to think to yourself, “I’m not hearing much from my boss…am I about to be furloughed — or fired?” you need to challenge yourself with more rational thinking (even if being furloughed or fired is a possibility).
The first step is to name your catastrophic thinking for what it is and the impact it makes. When your mind starts to wander down those dark alleys, say to yourself (out loud if it helps), “I am having catastrophic thoughts, and these don’t serve me at all.” Or, “I am making up a terrible story, and that’s all it is — a story.” Or “These thoughts make me feel anxious and I can change them.”
The second step is to remind yourself that even if the worst-case scenario should happen, you have the resources you need to deal with it. Take a few minutes to list all of the inner resources you have available (your resilience, determination, sense of humor, and so on) as well as the external resources you have available (your family, your friends, your network) that you could lean into if and when you need to.
The third step is to find the core of truth in your catastrophic thinking that needs real attention from you. If you’re constantly worrying that you’re going to be fired, ask yourself what’s actually going on at work (limited feedback, for example) that’s raising your level of anxiety. In The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, security expert Gavin de Becker writes that we have an intuitive sense of when we are in danger — but that being afraid all the time doesn’t actually protect us from danger.
What does? Making a concrete, actual plan to address what’s worrying you — or let it go.
Draw from your “portfolio of selves”
According to Blake Ashforth, a leading expert on identity at Arizona State University, in his book, Role Transitions in Organizational Life: An Identity-Based Perspective, our sense of self is largely rooted in how other people perceive us. This is what makes limited feedback and fewer kudos so challenging for many of us. In the absence of hearing, “I really value your creative input” or even “we couldn’t have won this pitch without you!” we tend to question who we are and the value we bring. “Am I really a team player,” you may think to yourself, “if I’m not hearing much from my team?”
For each person we engage with — a colleague, a boss, a friend, a child — we have a different “self” who shows up. As Ashforth writes, “A particular role calls forth a particular self, such that the individual is actually a portfolio of selves.” This portfolio of selves allows us to be the person we need to be at a particular moment to feel better, and even to rise to meet a particular challenge or tricky situation.
“One of the coping strategies is to think about yourself as having multiple identities,” author and Wharton professor Adam Grant contends in his podcast, WorkLife. While you may not be hearing from your boss right now about your “team player” self, you can boost your self-confidence by thinking about all of the positive, helpful, contributing “selves” you are to the people around you.
So, if you’re feeling insecure about yourself as a team player, for example, because you’re feeling unnoticed by your boss, you can boost your self-confidence by thinking about all of the positive, helpful, contributing “selves” you are to the people around you. Think about at least 5 other people in your life who hold you in high regard. Write down their names and how they see you — for example, “My colleague Wendy sees me as a reliable advisor”; “My client Sam sees me as a strategic thinker.”
Leverage our reciprocity bias
In Robert B. Cialdini’s timeless book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he cites “reciprocity” as the first principle of persuasion. In other words, we are wired to treat other people as they have treated us. This drives us to return favors (or slights) and treat others well (or poorly). It’s also what motivates us to pay back debts (or not — if that’s what the other person has done to us).
When it comes to getting more positive feedback, a boost of cheerleading, or even a friendly check in, our best bet may be to give it to get it. Each week, reach out to a few of your colleagues, managers, direct reports, and even clients and vendors to share a positive observation about them, let them know that you’re thinking of them, remind them about that they impact they have on you, and even share that you miss seeing them. And then, be ready to receive all of that back in return.
As Malcolm Forbes said, “A little reciprocity goes a long way.”
Of course, while you wait for reciprocal kudos to come your way, you may want to simply ask directly for what you need. Saying to your manager or teammate, “I know that this isn’t business as usual, but I realize that I still want and value your feedback. It feels especially important to me now that we’re working together in a different way. Can we set aside 5-10 minutes in our next scheduled meeting to share some feedback with me?” (And be prepared to share your feedback as well.)
Working remotely may reduce our physical and emotional proximity, but it doesn’t have to undermine our motivation, confidence, and self-esteem.