Leadership Again?

I believe you would agree with me that we are truly living through a period of a global lack of good leadership. So the least we need is to add to the sorry count of bad leaders.

As a business leader, now that we are in some sort of a recovery phase this should provide you with very compelling reasons to engage and strengthen your overall connections with employees. Recognising and addressing the core human emotions of anxiety in the workplace is a chance to rebuild organisational health, productivity and talent retention. This juncture is also providing a unique opportunity to overcome the stigma of mental and emotional health as taboo topics for workplace discussion.

Clear and inspiring communication is central to making this next unsteady phase a success. In addition to moving decisively on strategic changes, leaders need to help rattled workforces believe in the future. For many people, their employer has been a zone of relative stability during a time of chronic uncertainty. Research is showing that a positive aspect coming out is that many employees have viewed corporate leaders as the most trusted source of information since the frantic early days of the pandemic.

Communication messaging and activity in four overlapping phases will help employees move from loss to renewal. These steps, can help leaders design the right approach to communicating that works for their organisation’s circumstances, corporate culture and history.

Be sensitive to employees’ needs
As a business leader you should understand where people are mentally and prepare accordingly. Some will be enthusiastic about returning to the office and returning to some sort of normality, while others will not want to venture back yet. Still others may want to reenter in theory, but worry about risks to their health and the safety of their loved ones.

People are also facing long-term uncertainty around job insecurity: Will their employer go under?

You need to communicate regularly with your employees so you identify the practical concerns.
Make your return planning processes transparent. Indicate who is working on the plan, how they are thinking about it, and when announcements will be made. Make it clear how you will be thinking about phasing and who will fall into which phase. Where possible, put bounds on the uncertainty: What do you know is definitely happening, what is definitely not happening, and when do you expect to have firmer answers? Solicit feedback from all stakeholders on a recurring basis. Some have put together task forces to simply process feedback; others have set up recurring dialogues with employees.

Address emotions directly
Research suggests that companies that move effectively to address trauma, uncertainty and anxiety can rebound more quickly and experience stronger success.Throughout the pandemic, employees have experienced varying degrees of trauma, uncertainty and anxiety, both in their workplaces and in their personal lives. As leaders you need to invest time in cultivating open, compassionate conversations about all this. While conversations about the emotional toll of the pan­demic may seem uncomfortable or unnecessary, they help strengthen ties with employees, who appreciate leaders’ openness.Top teams that skip this step risk the appearance of being tone deaf or callous, thereby undermining their authentic concerns about moving the organisation forward.

The CEO or Managing Director needs to be prominent here; this is not work to be delegated. At this point in time employees are more eager than ever to hear from their organisation’s top leader. This may well involve attending multiple smaller groups. You need to normalise emotional concerns of employees at all levels. Hold top team conversations about how the pandemic has affected the business and recognise the contributions that the team and all employees have made. Define this as an important and open conversation to have. Ensure that other leaders within your company work with their teams similarly and cascade the conversation throughout the organisation. Take time to celebrate and reinforce the values the company stands for, and how they were demonstrated in the company’s pandemic response. Showing gratitude is also important for mental health.

Mark the transition
COVID-19 has created unprecedented upheaval in the lives of our organisations. A stress on company values and a renewed sense of purpose, can serve as pillars of psychological safety and normality. They can help employees process what has happened and rebuild social capital. The workplace provides a relevant and powerful source to help people put traumatic situations into a more motivational perspective. As employees return from remote working to office- or site-based working, rituals will help mark the start of a new phase in the organisation’s life.

Throughout this phase, focus messaging on discovery as a way simultaneously to look back and ahead. Essentially answer this question: Through the crisis and our response, what have we learned about ourselves, each other, and our organisation that can help us in the future?

Embrace a new sense of purpose
Leaders may be tempted to withdraw to make key decisions as quickly as possible. Instead, they can use this moment to define and demonstrate a common sense of purpose with employees, who will be looking for leadership and ways to engage themselves. Purposeful leaders will want to share execution plans broadly with staff to solicit input and engage them on the challenges the organisation faces.

Taking the time to reflect on purpose can have an array of benefits. At the organizational level, purpose­ful companies have been shown to out­perform competitors on returns and have more engaged employees. At the personal level, reconnecting to purpose has been shown to be a critical factor in coping with crises and trauma. When decision makers align their decision making and communication messaging with a sense of purpose they may help support their employees’ potential at a time when leadership needs it most.

Use this period to create a cultural conversation across the company and a positive outlook about its future. Many of the recommended activities above will be appropriate for small groups, perhaps spread over a few weeks or, where possible, held simul­taneously on a single day, with options for people to participate remotely.

Managers and team leaders should speak with their teams about how the work they’re doing contributes to recovery; they can ask people what motivates them and gives their work meaning.
Set the strategic direction in context by develop­ing, articulating, and sharing the organization’s new/refreshed change story—the “How do we get there, and why will it be worth it?” This will help people understand what the future looks like. Other questions to ponder about include – What has changed over the last few months? What has stayed the same? How do we prioritise? What are new expectations of leaders? Of employees?

All of the above steps stem from the need for clear, empathetic communi­cation that keeps people optimistic and hopeful, but also resilient and prepared for further disruption. This stage of recovery will challenge organisations’ communications functions to become even more agile, as they shift between crisis response mode and normal, more future-oriented strategies. Leaders will not know all the answers, but as long as they communicate openly and candidly, employees will respect being brought into the conversation.

At EMCS we specialise in offering you adhoc training in boosting your leadership and communication skills to have your business adapt to this new normal. Contact me on silvan.mifsud@emcs.com.mt for more details.

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