Revitalising your team during COVID-19
1. Liberally apply bounded optimism
As a leader, you need to show compassion, but also to temper hope with a realistic framework that resonates with employees. This maintains your integrity and authenticity.
The Stockdale Paradox helps to understand why bounded optimism is so vital, particularly in this phase of burnout. US Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale was a prisoner in Vietnam when he was a captain. He had to communicate to his fellow prisoners a sense of hope in a hopeless situation. He later said that those who felt they would be “home by Christmas” fared much worse mentally than those who understood it might take much longer, and adjusted. Later, many of his fellow prisoners credited his message of optimism tempered by realism with helping them survive.
Leaders need to relay the fact that we’re not going back to the way we were, but we’re going to be better than before. In other words, we need to shift the narrative from what’s gone to what’s coming next, in a balanced way.
2. Offer consultations
One approach uses leader listening tours, in which leaders are trained in deep-listening skills before meeting with colleagues in virtual focus groups. This creates a space for employees to share how they are truly doing, leaders sometimes start by showing vulnerability themselves, which sends a powerful signal that “it’s OK to not be OK.”
Back-to-back video calls has left employees feeling more disconnected than ever, especially from their leaders, with whom most meeting times are seen as transactional. In response, leaders should create space on their calendars for informal connections that allow for agenda-free, spontaneous, and casual interactions.
Perhaps most important is how often you listen. It’s not enough to launch a few listening efforts and then act. Leaders must listen continually, taking a regular pulse on how employees are doing. This will be especially important over the next year, as employee moods and needs are bound to fluctuate, with the potential for great impact.
3. How's your AQ (adaptability quotient)?
Arthur W. Frank, a professor of sociology at the University of Calgary, working with patients with chronic illness revealed how we process a crisis with an indefinite timeline. In his work The Wounded Storyteller,8 Frank found there were three archetypical responses to being sick: first, individuals who yearn to go back to the way things were, engaging in a “restitution” narrative in which they talk about how much better their lives were before illness; second, individuals who have lost sight of the past and cannot imagine who they could be in the future (they exist only in the present and tell a “chaos” narrative); and third, those who embrace a “quest” narrative, meeting their unchanging circumstances head on, accepting them, and incorporating them as part of their identity and journey. Unsurprisingly, patients who thrived with their chronic conditions choose to go on the third journey and see “illness as the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest.”
Leaders who strengthen the tenacity of their team not only do the right thing for their people but also set themselves up to succeed in the new normal of volatility and virtual work. Upskilling on adaptability and resilience can be a powerful way to improve well-being and experience, which in turn has been shown to improve creativity, innovation, engagement, organizational speed, and performance.
4. Caring, connecting and well-being
In the current environment employees have anxiety about the economy and job security, and so many aren’t taking time off. And even for those who are, with nowhere to vacation, work seems to overpower. In times of stress, people need time off to recharge and recover. And they need leaders to legitimise and actively role model this. How can you help?
Prioritise busyness and help create a more manageable environment for employees by helping them focus on the work that matters most.
Encourage employees to take a zero-based-budgeting approach to meetings, an exercise that will empower them to choose which meetings to attend. Introduce programs to encourage mindfulness and well-being.
Leaders should analyze what kind of impact their mindfulness programs, stress-management training, mental-health-awareness campaigns, and “video-free Thursdays” are having. Are people using them? Are they sticking to them? What’s making this possible or what’s making it hard? It’s not enough just to launch initiatives. Organisations need to listen, test, measure, learn, and repeat.
5. Unleash energy by reorganisation of your operating model
The new office should be a meeting place for collaboration, connection, and innovation and much less as a heads-down cubical farm for individual work.
Leaders should build a more meaningful culture of empowerment by streamlining their decision governance, pushing decisions down to a network of small empowered teams. In aggregate, the impact is that organisations are able to create value by acting with unprecedented speed, by creating an environment in which employees are encouraged to bring their talents to bear, and by opening up capacity for leaders to spend more time caring for and connecting with teams.