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Pitfalls To Avoid While Leading Through The Pandemic

This unprecedented crisis requires a return to leadership fundamentals—empathy, humility and gratitude—to make it safely to the other side.

Believe it or not, it was just a few short weeks ago when we naively thought that we were already being challenged to lead in a world of constant disruption. In 2018, I wrote:

“If there’s one constant in today’s workplace, it’s change. VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) has not only entered the common parlance, it’s now business as usual.”

Oh, how little I knew. The disruptions were just warming up.

In a classic scene from the rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, guitarist Nigel Tufnel shows off his custom-built guitar amplifiers. He describes how the amp’s control setting knobs go all the way up to eleven. As Nigel explains, the volume doesn’t just to go the standard ten. He says, “It’s one louder, isn’t it?”

There’s change. Then there’s coronavirus change. This disruption has gone to eleven, and it’s still getting louder. If ever there was a time for leaders to step up and lead through change, this is it.  Now the big question is: What to do first?

In times of crisis, it’s best to return to the fundamentals. Why? Because they work. The fundamentals serve as buoys in the stormy sea, showing us where we are and where we need to go next.

In his landmark book, Leading Change, John Kotter maps out an 8-step process for leading through change. The first step: Create a sense of urgency. I think we can agree that COVID-19 has ticked that box for us already.

Kotter’s second step is to build a guiding coalition. This means inspiring a group to come together as a team. With this sudden shift to a shut-at-home workforce, all leaders have drawn the same “Do not pass go. Go back to square one” card.

To inspire the kind of resilient teamwork that’ll be needed in the weeks and months ahead, leaders are going to have raise their game. Your connection, communication and collaboration skills will to be put to the test. Leading through this crisis from a distance means being extra intentional about how you lead by example.

Here are three pitfalls three to avoid as you form your new team:

Pitfall #1: Having a “check your feelings at the door” policy.

Leaders create unwritten rules through their words and their actions. What rules are you writing? If ever there was a time to be exceptionally human at work, today’s the day. Like it or not, how people feel profoundly impacts how they perform. Research has found that the most important thing a leader can do to improve trust among their team members is to care for them.

To care for people, you don’t need to be a trained mental health professional. You just need to be an empathic person. Right now, care starts with connecting and checking in on how people are feeling.

In this pandemic, strong feelings of overwhelm can be paralyzing. Holding space for people to openly express themselves may be the most valuable thing you can do right now. Feeling safe is always important, but in a crisis, the need for safety multiplies.  Caring for people helps them feel safe.

Pitfall #2: Wearing the superhero costume.

There’s a powerful leadership archetype of the superhero. It suggests that leaders need to be strong, tireless, and invincible. If you’re in charge, you should “never let them see you sweat”.  But these types of heroes are best seen on a movie screen with CGI.

Consider who our real heroes are today. No doubt you’ve seen pictures of medical workers with torn-up faces after 24 straight hours of wearing PPE masks tending to the sick. It’s the nurses, doctors, supermarket cashiers, EMTs, truck drivers, and countless other helpers and community volunteers who are performing acts of heroism day after day. Ordinary people stepping into extraordinary circumstances.

You may be driven to help others, but are you also open to asking for help? No one expects you to have the solution to every problem right now. However, when you ask for help, an amazing thing happens: You give others the chance to help, too.

Consider Peter, the owner of a small business. Peter was suffering greatly two weeks ago because he reviewed the financials of the company and was going to have to lay off half of his workforce. He couldn’t see a way out of it.

Instead of figuring this out on his own, Peter took a brave step. He set up a company-wide Zoom call and was completely transparent about the situation. He asked for help. The wider team created a brilliant solution that involved job shares, volunteer unpaid vacation, and reductions in hours. In the end, no one was laid off.

When given the chance, people are amazingly creative, robust and supportive. Sometimes, it’s as simple as being asked. There’s nothing like a crisis to bring out the leader in everyone. It’s time to take off the cape and ask for help

Pitfall #3: Taking things for granted.

While it may feel like everything has gone topsy-turvy, some things have stayed the same. What it takes to build effective human relationships hasn’t changed. Before this crisis, research found that the top communication issue that prevented leaders from being effective was not recognizing employee achievements. In addition, lack of appreciation was found to be the #1 reason why people left their jobs..

Humans have always wanted to be seen and heard. Not only do we want to be recognized for what we do, we want to be appreciated for who we are. Mix in a strong dose of social distancing and isolation? The need for recognition and appreciation deepens.

In their minds, most leaders value their employees. But their actions don’t follow suit.   If you want to form and sustain an effective team, put “appreciation and recognition” on your daily agenda. Make it personal. Set up both one-on-one and team zoom calls. Go out of your way to find specific things that you can share—with the person and with the team.

There are four phases of team development made famous by the  forming, norming, storming, and performing. Your newly remote team is in the forming and norming stages right now. By being an exceptionally human-centered leader, you can transform a scattered group of anxious individuals into a resilient team. The investment you make in these relationships upfront will pay dividends in the weeks, months and years ahead.


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