Challenging times for leaders all around the world
Times are certainly challenging for leaders all over the world. Most people have never experienced the current combination of a visceral fear of disease coupled with the practical implications of job loss or salary reduction in their lifetime. In Australia these challenges coming hard on the heels of the worst bushfire season in history has proved very unsettling. Many people accept that the underlying cause of the bushfires was climate change – an invisible and insidious threat. Now we add the invisible and insidious threat of a highly contagious virus and this has left much of the population vulnerable and unsettled. People observing their neighbours panic buying, fighting over goods in supermarkets and on the other hand apparently ignoring professional advice about how to protect ourselves and others during this pandemic has shaken some people’s faith in human nature. Just at a time when people would like to see their neighbours and colleagues as supportive, helpful and kind they seem to be seeing surprisingly negative aspect of human behaviour which perhaps they did not anticipate. Human beings become very uncomfortable when people around are acting in ways they did not expect.
During these times it important to lead with optimism. Leadership evolved to give hope of a better future. In a practical sense animals and primates like us follow other animals in order to improve their survival rate. Therefore, optimism is crucial for effective leadership. But this is not the cockeyed optimism which says, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine,” it is optimism about our ability to make it safely and effectively through the crisis. It is where we say to our team, “If we stick together we are going to be fine. I know this is a good team and we are going to succeed.”
Be supportive at the human level. Many leaders are under personal stress at the moment. They are wondering how commercial targets can be reached, customers and stakeholders can be looked after and the business can be kept running, all whilst they are dealing with the same health and career concerns that employees are. Under these circumstances leaders can naturally become self absorbed and preoccupied with their own challenges. One of the responsibilities of leadership is to rise above these personal concerns and to remember the importance of being supportive to staff. Many leaders now are leading staff who are physically distanced from them – a challenge they may not have faced previously. An extremely valuable contribution of leaders in the circumstances is to call staff from time to time to simply check in – ask them how they are going, whether their family is well, if they need any further support. When staff are psychologically comfortable and things are going well these caring touches are positive and valuable. Right now they will be seen with gratitude by staff – there is evidence that the leader and by proxy the organisation values them.
Focus on what can be controlled and ignore the rest. One of the big problems for employees in these tough times is the unceasing stream of bad news. We have to encourage our people to focus on what they can control. Are we worried about the virus? Let’s focus on hygiene and social distancing to lesson the sense of helplessness which can accompany an unseen threat. Are we worried about the economic future of our company? Let’s focus on the day-to-day things we can do to make our customers happy so that every team member can feel that they are making a contribution and not simply waiting to see whether we survive or not.
Provide a structure. One of the most challenging things about times like these is that our typical structures go out the window. Working from home can be an absolute blessing for some people but for others the absence of colleagues, a daily work structure and set activities can be particularly stressful. Commercial staff are often not anywhere near as busy as they were previously and so they lack the natural structure of responding to customer enquiries. Under these circumstances leaders may find that it is particularly beneficial to have more planned structured contact with staff than usual.
Many staff get their fulfilment from unscheduled watercooler conversations which are now non-existent. Scheduled catch ups, ideally through videoconferencing, can be particularly valuable, as can involving staff in projects with clear structures and deadlines. These will restore a sense of structure to employees work life which can prove reassuring.
During times like this leaders can feel that it is important to act like a “boss”. They may feel that it is important to take control in order to ensure that progress is made and that the organisation is heading in the right direction. The problem with this is that it reinforces the employees’ sense of helplessness. Why not convene teams of employees to work together to come up with solutions to the organisation’s current problems? This will once more reinforce that employees have a key role to play in getting through these tough times as well as proving to them that they are valuable. This may well also take pressure off the leader – the team will solve the problem rather than the leader solely bearing the burden of improvement.