By dana Brownlee, Senior Contributor, Forbes
COVID-19 has not just changed the world but also changed the DNA of our workplace ecosystem in many ways. Our leaders must change as well to lead effectively in this new era. If this pandemic experience has taught us anything, it’s that leadership matters and for many organizations facing decidedly fragile futures, it may matter now more than ever as the country tries to emerge from forced hibernation and rebuild a broken economy. Throughout this tragedy, we’ve witnessed certain leadership traits and approaches that may have made the difference between life and death. Similarly, our organizations will require distinct leadership traits to restore and revive stressed and flailing supply chains, product lines, even entire industries.
My definition of candor is honesty without ambiguity. While honesty has always been an important leadership trait, this moment requires another level of honesty – candor. Arguably, the best antidote for a workplace climate of anxiety and cynicism is candor. People respond so much better to the known (even if the news isn’t great), than the unknown (which tends to fuel more anxiety) or even worse misleading half-truths or irresponsible optimism (which can irreparably damage trust long term). Many would argue that it was actually the Coronavirus Task Force’s candid, sobering presentation of models tragically projecting 100,000-240,000 American deaths that provided the impetus needed to create widespread buy in for social distancing efforts and greater tolerance for the subsequent economic impact. Indeed, the news in this case wasn’t good, but that clear and candid dose of reality seemed to be not just effective but also necessary to build consensus.
#2 Consistent Reliable Fact-Based Communications
During this pandemic, there hasn’t been much that I could count on consistently, but for several weeks, I developed a habit of stopping for a few minutes around noon to hear New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily, fact filled matter of fact style COVID-19 briefings. Governor Cuomo has garnered praise for these briefings where he methodically provides fact based updates then responds to a wide range of journalists’ questions with the support of his team of experts and clearly competent staff. Unfortunately, his briefings have stood in stark contrast to the oftentimes dysfunctional atmosphere of the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings where President Trump frequently demeans and attacks reporters, contradicts task force experts (or even himself), provides misleading information or responds to questions clearly better answered by those in the scientific community. While the administration’s Coronavirus Task Force should clearly be commended for holding regular briefings, the content and tone of the briefings matter as well. The takeaway for leaders – having consistent, reliable fact-based communications will be a key ingredient for bringing organizations together and reducing workplace anxiety.
Leaders often wear many hats and certainly as workers return to the workplace, leaders will become counselor in chief in many ways. Indeed, this tragedy has touched so many in such profound ways that many workers will be essentially working while grieving. Leaders (at all levels of the hierarchical food chain) won’t just need to have a natural sense about when a particular team member may need to be referred to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) for counseling, take a break from a meeting that’s degenerated into dysfunctional conflict or even just need some heartfelt words of encouragement at the end of a long day. They’ll also need to tap into a keen level of sensitivity as they consider changes to long standing policies and processes (e.g. sick leave, time off, telecommuting, etc.) to better fit their organization’s (or their industry’s) new normal. For leaders who aren’t naturally empathetic, they should surround themselves with others who can help fill that gap. Unfortunately, just a few tone deaf, insensitive responses or decisions can have tragic consequences with an organization’s understandably fragile psyche during this time.
#4 Managing Hybrid Teams
One of the few bright spots of this unintended remote working experiment is that for many organizations, they’ve learned that they can reduce costs and create efficiencies by developing and supporting a more extensive virtual working infrastructure. Furthermore, as many workers have now grown accustomed to eliminating their commute or spending additional quality time with family, teleworking expectations will likely increase. ButcherBox’s Founder and CEO Mike Salguero insists that ButcherBox is reconsidering what their workplace will look like going forward. “We were in the process of looking for new office space, or renovating our current space, and now our conversations around that space are shifting to thinking about a flexible format – less about dedicated offices and desks and more about collaboration space, meeting and large conference spaces,” explains Salguero.
Managing hybrid, non co-located teams doesn’t just require changes in facilities, but also a shift in mindset and even day to day operations. Project Management Institute President and CEO Sunil Prashara warns that virtual/hybrid teams require a different style of leadership. “If you just sit back and don’t bring your virtual teams together regularly, work streams will fall apart,” warns Prashara.
#5 Flexibility and Adaptability
Weeks before the country began to shut down, most leaders couldn’t have imagined such a drastic widespread action. In this case, being an ostrich leader could have easily meant the difference between life and death. Faced with unprecedented uncertainty, leaders will need to avoid the temptation to “stick with a decision” in an attempt to appear decisive and instead be willing to regularly review new data, information and feedback and change course if necessary. While businesses may resume operations based on a logical, clearly thought through plan, if (God forbid) their building experiences an outbreak for example, they will need to be mentally poised to dramatically shift course irrespective of the formal policy they may have just rolled out or spent countless hours developing. Indeed, for these leaders any delay in changing course can have drastic consequences for the viability of their business if not the health of their staff.
Leaders unfortunately are often expected to know it all and make perfect decisions, and the obvious truth is that they’re just as human and fallible as anyone else. In these unchartered waters one of the biggest mistakes leaders can make is pretending they know more than they do or making decisions relying only on their instinct or previous experience. Whether it’s knowledge related to public health science, modeling, statistics, human resources or even legal issues, leaders will undoubtedly find themselves needing to rely on expertise that they don’t themselves have in order to make the best decisions for the broader organization. As a result, humility will be a huge asset. It takes a strong leader to respond to a difficult question with “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” or step aside from the podium and allow an expert to field most of the questions, but as this pandemic continues to unfold, that may be just what’s required.
#7 Active Listening
As leaders return to cubicles, elevators and conference rooms filled with an undercurrent of anxiety, it may be just as important for them to listen as to lead. Indeed, this may be one of those rare situations where hierarchy matters less and mass opinion could actually dictate next steps for the organization. While leaders debate the appropriate timing to open schools and businesses, others point out that customers and parents might be the real decision makers. Similar questions loom in the business arena. Can the business reopen in the traditional sense if workers or customers don’t feel safe and simply refuse to come? The decision about reopening is just one of many that are best made when the leader has his/her ear to the ground and is well aware of staff concerns, priorities and ideas. For example, to inform their layout planning decisions, ButcherBox CEO Mike Salguero plans to survey employees to gather their feedback on the right “office/telecommute mix.” While leaders will certainly still need to make hard decisions and won’t please everyone along the way, making well informed decisions will be key. Indeed, there is a difference between listening and waiting to talk and for many leaders, their ability to shift gears into “listening to understand” versus “listening to respond” will be a key ingredient for their success.
Admittedly, these aren’t the only traits that matter for leaders during this pandemic, but these are seven critical ones. Many of these traits are traditionally viewed as tertiary, nice to have qualities, but in this unprecedented time, they will become absolutely necessary for leaders to lead organizations through a time of inconvenient uncertainty and collective trauma. Indeed, this type of leadership won’t just be required at the top of the organization chart but at every level of human interaction.