For the millions of people learning to lead in this pandemic and for the people training future leaders in our organizations, this year has proven monumentally unique. The stories and training examples will be told in classrooms (virtual or not) for years to come. In many ways, the pandemic has been the ultimate training ground for leaders.
Never has there been an enemy like this one targeting the human side of every organization. Never have leaders had to deal with so much information changing so rapidly and affecting so completely the short- and long-term goals of their business. We begin to doubt the most basic information about how to protect ourselves and our workforce … we even wonder just where we fall on the “essential” scale.
Leadership is in the spotlight. Employees aren’t looking for leaders to make decisions about the quality of widgets in the shipping container; they are expecting decisions that keep them safe and healthy and prevent them from carrying germs home to their families. Leaders are now (finally) forced to take care of the worker, build relationships, have personal conversations and care.
COVID is the Ironman of leadership experiences. Everyone is watching, and employees are feeling the effects of their manager’s leadership style. The world is watching leaders work — and they don’t have nearly as much interest in their products as they do in their employees. Leaders had better be taking temperatures, providing hand sanitizer, enforcing mask-wearing and standing six feet apart. Their actions are speaking so loudly that it’s hard to hear their words. From the moment a leader opens their eyes in the morning, their leadership is scrutinized, evaluated and weighed against the latest changes in this fluid situation. And, much like a video game, the opponent doesn’t tire, and the perils just keep coming.
Here are two examples:
Bob owns a successful business. He is 65 and recently took on the role of executive director, which allows him to be involved while stepping away from day-to-day involvement in the business. After COVID-19 hit, Bob’s three senior leaders made a series of decisions: Close the office, and have “non-essential” personnel work from home. Shut down the plants due to the lack of orders, and furlough those workers. Communicate with workers weekly, and continue to pay their benefits.
Fast-forward to June, when the leaders decided they wanted employees to return to work. They implemented temperature checks, restricted the use of locker rooms, put cleaning supplies throughout the workplace, supplied masks and monitored social distancing, among other precautionary actions. Meanwhile, Bob wanted to visit the plant. He showed up without a mask, entered through the back door with no temperature check, spoke to a few people and left. A week later, he showed up at the office, again without a mask, and walked around, speaking to employees and even sitting with several of them — thus violating social distancing.
Some employees now feel that Bob is a poor leader — that he is irresponsible, feels that the rules don’t apply to him and doesn’t listen to his senior leaders. Other employees, for the first time, think that maybe COVID isn’t so serious, after all. The next day, several workers decide that wearing masks is uncomfortable and refuse to wear them.
When one of the senior leaders asks Bob why he did what he did, he says, “It’s important to speak to the workforce and let them know you understand these are tough times.”
As a leader, role-modeling as is always important, and so is sincere empathy and understanding. Bob can’t see the impact of his actions; he doesn’t see what others see.
Jim is a middle manager who currently has two supervisors and 25 direct reports. When the company made the decision to furlough his team, he called everyone together and explained in detail everything he knew at that time. He answered questions as well as he could, promised each worker that he would keep in touch and told them to call him if they had questions. Each week during the furlough, he called each of his team members to check on them.
When asked why he behaved this way, Jim said that a few of his team members were caring for older parents and that many more were working through homeschooling issues. He knew this situation was tough and wanted to make sure they were doing OK.
When the company decided to bring the workers back to the office, a few of Jim’s team members didn’t have child care, and one was concerned about becoming infected and then infecting his family members, one of whom who has a compromised immune system. Jim worked out specific solutions when possible and then explained to each team member the new protection procedures that would be in effect when they returned to work. The day they all came back to the office, Jim was at the door, in a mask, making sure his team members made it through the screening process and answering any questions they had.
As a leader, role-modeling as is always important, and so is sincere empathy and understanding. Jim may or may not see the impact of his actions, but he understands the importance of building relationships with his team members.
The differences between Bob and Jim boil down to a difference in their perceptions and assumptions. Bob perceives himself as a leader who is unaffected by the difficulties of his workers. His goal is to make sure he speaks to the people who can influence the thoughts and actions of others. His hierarchical methods are due to many factors, including his status, his experience and his habit of leading this way through his history with the organization. He has made the business a success by relying on this style.
Jim, on the other hand, perceives himself as a team member who just happens to have a bigger responsibility within the organization. His goal is to know his team members so he can support them. His egalitarian communication approach helps him build relationships. He learned his style by coming up “through the ranks” and empathizing with workers.
Which leader do you trust in this pandemic? The answer is both. The intersection of leadership style, relationships and communication and how the workforce translates that combination into feeling valued, welcomed and appreciated is key.
Carol is a senior vice president who has helped to make the hard decisions during this crisis and knows how those decisions will impact the workforce. Her normal communication style is transactional; if you spend too much time on small talk, Carol will politely but firmly ask you about progress on your current project, bringing the subject back to work.
However, in this situation, Carol realized that she needed to be more interpersonal; it is a crisis of people, not widgets. Carol’s superpower is her ability to adapt, to use her skills and training to change her communication style and make sure she understands, shows empathy, and makes time to listen to employees’ concerns and issues. She runs town hall-type calls, makes calls, posts emails with helpful information, puts on her mask, distributes hand sanitizer and touches base with employees. These behaviors are outside of her comfort zone, but Carol makes it happen, because she understands the importance of taking care of her people.
Broadly stated, most employees will understand when organizational decisions about production, design or distribution are made by higher-ups without much consideration of the people doing the work, because they know the big picture. Workers will never understand when decisions about their homes, families or health are made by anyone else in the business. Leaders must ask their employees what will help. They must become a partner, a role model and an adviser.
When the enemy is an unyielding pandemic, it isn’t products and services that are attacked. Employees are an organization’s most important asset. Only a caring, understanding, involved leader will rise to the occasion. If your organization’s managers don’t know how to be relationship-centered leaders, give them the training that will ensure that they do.