The world has turned upside down as of late — and the economy along with it.

The shift to remote work. The rise of e-commerce, automation and artificial intelligence (AI). Fluctuating consumer preferences and behaviors. Disrupted supply chains. A hastened digital transformation.

Most of these changes did not come out of left field, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated their timeline in breathtaking ways. The result? Companies have had to scramble to keep up with an unprecedented degree of change.

Change is hard, and it’s intense. The logistical challenges presented by all of this change are real. But the challenge isn’t just an operational one. It’s a leadership one: How can a company’s leaders create the conditions for teams to thrive in the face of all that change?

Change isn’t inherently bad or good. It can be exciting or scary. It can be viewed as an insurmountable hurdle or an inviting opportunity. It can create ambitious, engaged employees or resigned, disengaged ones. There’s a very fine line between these two outcomes, and it is leadership that makes all of the difference.

So, how can leaders go about generating high engagement in a rapidly changing organization?

Short-term Stability and Long-term Possibility

The first impulse that most leaders have in the face of change is simply to stabilize: Survive. Secure the base. For many organizations, stabilization at the outset of the pandemic involved shoring up inventory and cash flow, securing Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans, setting up employees to continue basic operations remotely, and the like.

However, while taking decisive action for short-term stability is critical, it is only half of the equation. Organizations can focus so intently on putting out fires today that that they forget to ensure their relevance tomorrow. It is precisely in moments of change that leaders must ensure that the team is taking the long view:

    • How has our industry fundamentally changed?
    • How are we uniquely positioned to add value in a disrupted marketplace?
    • What experiments can we do to understand what’s possible and set a new direction?

As an example, here is what this process looked like at the Granger Network. As the virus began to rage last March, it became clear that several in-person programs that we had on the calendar over the next few months would have to move online. The viability of the business meant quickly and effectively pivoting to a new mode of delivery. It was what we needed to do to secure the base.

At the same time, we had to consider that our industry was shifting fundamentally and identify ways to leverage those changes rather than fall victim to them. For example, virtual reality (VR) had long been on our radar as a cool and potentially powerful leadership development tool that we should explore “at some point.”

When we took a step back and surveyed our industry and the effects of the pandemic, we realized that we had to be in action now. So, we ordered VR headsets, started conversations with developers and set ourselves up to have a VR offering in 2021. If we had only focused on securing our base in the short term, that possibility would never have come about.

Many organizations make the mistake of operating exclusively in one domain: They either spend all of their time securing the base and forget to plan for the future, or they are so future-focused and paralyzed by the need to have a long-term plan that they neglect to gain their footing in the present. Leadership teams in a rapidly changing economy must be trained in the capacity to do both at the same time.

High Transparency and High Action

It can be tempting for a leader in the midst of change and uncertainty to convey absolute confidence (“We’ve got this under control! Nothing to see here!”). This pressure stems from an outdated model of leadership, one that requires leaders to have all of the answers and never show cracks in their armor.

The fact is that no leader has all of the answers. Great leaders know how to leverage that fact and invite others to co-create a future with them by learning, anticipating and experimenting together, demonstrating vulnerability and resilience throughout the process. Leading in this way requires trust, and one great way to generate trust is to “tell it like it is.” Being transparent and letting colleagues know where the organization stands can be tremendously empowering.

However, it’s critical to remember that transparency doesn’t achieve that desired effect without a high degree of action to go along with it. People need an area of focus, or they can easily feel unmoored. It’s good to know where they are — but it’s also critical that they know what to do. The sweet spot that the leader is looking for, then, is to acknowledge the uncertainty and, in the same breath, provide direction for channeling energies and focus to meet that uncertainty.

The start of the pandemic was an uncertain moment. At the Granger Network, many of our clients were hurting, and their budgets were contracting. This situation placed us in a potentially precarious position — which I didn’t hide from my team. In a meeting, I was forthright about the uncertainty we faced. I laid it all on the table — and I provided a tangible area of focus.

What was critical at that point was to exceed expectations on our current contracts. Only once those contracts were fulfilled could we move to a conversation with those clients about a new contract in 2021. This message resonated with my team members, because they saw the role they had to play in putting the organization in a good position to navigate the change and uncertainty of the moment. In the end, their efforts paid off.

Human Doing-ness and Human Being-ness

In the midst of change and upheaval, organizations still need to “get stuff done.” There’s no way around it. Employees must perform at a high level for long stretches and go the extra mile, and leaders must create the conditions for that work to happen efficiently and effectively. They must create management structures that can handle the high volume and increased velocity of projects and tasks. These structures require frequent communication and rigorous accountability.

And yet, in the midst of all of that “doing,” it’s important to relate to each other as more than “human doings” but also as human beings. When so much change is happening in an organization, psychological changes are happening in lock step. Moods are shifting; people are scared and concerned. Leaders need to create the structures to account for these shifts. They need to give their team members the opportunity to share how it’s going for them — as human beings.

To be sure, it involves a certain degree of slowing down in order to speed up. Some leaders are nervous at the thought of slowing down in any way whatsoever: “Our backs are against the wall here,” they say. “There’s barely enough time in the day as it is. How can hit the ‘pause’ button to talk about our feelings?”

It’s important for leaders to understand that the dichotomy between “doing” and “being” is a false one. You don’t really have a choice. You can’t do the “doing” if the “being” isn’t in order. If your colleague’s moods and emotions are not taken into account, eventually, he or she will eke out, hamper performance and cause a lot suffering along the way.

Start Small

The key for implementing these tips is to carve out time in small doses to attend to them. A little bit here can go a long way. For example, if leaders find that their organization, division or team seems to focus exclusively on putting out fires, they could carve out time for a meeting entirely dedicated to exploring emerging trends and “shoot the moon” opportunities. On the other hand, if leaders find that they’ve been going at full speed and “doing” without tending to the “being,” they might dedicate the first five minutes of team calls for a personal check-in.

Remember, it’s never all or nothing. Even the smallest efforts leaders take to engage their team in the midst of great change can make a big difference.

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