Uncharted Territory


Leading without a mask

What a roller coaster the last two weeks have been – or the first two weeks A.C. (After Coronavirus!) as I’m personally calling it. In that time, I’ve found myself talking about the change curve a lot.  About how we’ve all been plunged into letting go of our old status quo and being required to change, against our will and without any consultation. Change isn’t new, of course, but in most organisational change situations it is planned and anticipated. Which allows leaders time to get to grips with what is coming, to put a change team together, to involve representatives from across the organisation to help think about how to land and communicate change in the best way, and to get managers ready to support those they manage through the change. Even with that planning many change programmes fail to live up to what is promised. Which is probably why poorly handled change is cited by the recent Deloitte report as a key driver of mental health issues in the workplace now I come to think about it.

Regardless, when change is planned or anticipated, leaders and managers are usually slightly further ahead on the change curve than everyone else, they can try to help those they lead and manage once they are started on the journey. What a lovely place B.C. (Before Coronavirus) was, change as a result of this pandemic has allowed no head starts.  Leaders and managers have been plunged into the change curve along with everyone else and given no opportunity to plan or prepare.

They are having to respond and learn how to manage their own new reality let alone thinking about others.  They are having to do that whilst being looked to by those they lead & manage to find the way.  In the dark. On uneven ground. Without a torch. Without having had time to scout out even the first few steps, with people shouting helpful advice from all around and demanding to know what’s ahead and how you will bring them safely to the destination.

My point? I have a few actually and these are

  • Acknowledge you don’t have all the answers

As a leader or a manager, you are likely feeling a mix of emotions and expectation right now.  That’s ok. What’s less ok is putting a brave face and pretending you’ve got it all sussed.  You’re in uncharted territory – and every other leader and manager is walking along the same path with you.  Disclosing your challenges and distractions and asking people to walk alongside you rather than behind you isn’t weakness – it’s courageous, honest and will help you connect to those you lead/manage more deeply and quickly than before. What leaders and managers need to show more than ever right now is how they respond to uncertainty and ambiguity, not their ability to come up with the solution.

  • Focus on how your people are as much, if not more so, as what they are doing

The opportunity we all have to be real and human with each other, to build deeper relationships and bonds between colleagues is greater than it’s ever been.  The façade that is often put on in a professional environment is more permeable than before.  You are literally seeing behind the façade and seeing a glimpse of the human being behind it, toilet paper stocks and all. Sharing the human being inside your leader/manager packaging will give permission to your teams to do the same.

Which you need them to do right now.  Whilst we all have a different base level of anxiety as a starting point, the majority of us are experiencing an increased level of anxiety at the moment, whether that is about physical health, elderly relatives, children being at home alongside trying to work, having to navigate the supermarkets to restock supplies, technology not working well, living alone and lacking human company or having our liberty restricted. Anxiety tells us we are in danger and makes us feel unsafe.  Whilst we feel that way it is incredibly hard to relax sufficiently to the point where we can perform at our usual level of capability.

So, if you do anything right now, communicate that you will be checking in with people about their mental health and focus your time and capability onto checking in with your people to understand how they are feeling (their mental health) and what, if anything, you can do to help & support them right now.  You might be able to do something practical for them – if so do it without question (on the day of writing PwC and many other city firms have communicated to their employees what they are doing to assure job security which you can read here.) Or you might only be able to give emotional support – again do it without question.  If you can make your people feel safer, valued and supported right now it will build a deep loyalty that will reap real benefits and performance once things start to ease towards the new normal. In the words of Maya Angelou, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

  • Trust in the innate integrity of your people to do their very best

Your priority right now is you, your family and health (physical and mental).  Then comes your job – since if you can’t invest as you need to in order to protect these things, you won’t have the presence of mind to be able to function at anywhere near normal capacity on the work front.

Do what you need to do and trust that your people will be doing the same.  Be directive in fact that you need them to do that and be prepared to relax your expectations and short-term performance targets.  They all have integrity and the same capability you’ve seen them displaying B.C. – encourage them simply to do the very best they can do in the circumstances and overtly express your trust in them to do that.

Finally, if you are reading this as someone who is waiting for a leader or manager to, well, lead or manage, I ask you to take a deep breath and allow them some time to be human and get to grips with their own world first, as you do the same.  Expect them to ask you about your mental health. Be open and honest about what you need in order to do your very best.  And stay safe at home.

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