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Bridging the gap: Leadership strategies for recovery post Covid

by Jackson B
Bridging the gap: Leadership strategies for recovery post Covid
By L&D specialist and author Caroline Esterson, co-director of Genius Learning 

It is estimated that 4 out of 5 workers globally have been affected by full or partial workplace closures,[1]  many organisations have felt the impact heavily in their bottom line and some have even been forced to close forever. This was an emergency that sent shock waves across the globe. One that demands we all re-evaluate the way we work and the contribution we make.

A typical emergency plays out over three phases: respond in which the company responds to emergency to enable business continuity, recovery during which the company learns, experiments and emerges from the threat and finally, thrive where the company implements plans to shape a more positive future.

The pandemic forced leaders at all levels to respond to the emergency overnight. They adopted different working practices, sometimes leading to inconsistencies across the company and which many have found uncomfortable. It tested leaders patience and raised uncertainties that are tough to manage. It’s impact on performance cannot be under-estimated. It would be easy, as we move to the recovery phase, to wipe your brow, take a sigh of relief and hope that things return to normal. They won’t. People and working practices have forever changed as a result of the pandemic. This was not just a bump in the road that you got over can now return to the straight and narrow. It was a tectonic shift that we need to bridge. Whilst many people will be keen to get reconnected face to face, satisfied with an elbow bump, a smile, and face to face conversations, some will automatically lunge in for a hug and yet others will still be very nervous about the potential risks that returning to the physical space will bring. As we move into the recovery phase, leaders need to take stock to consider how they support their people to make a smooth transition to secure that high performance you desire.

Driving the numbers or supporting your people?

You might be one of those leaders who don’t feel showing care and attention is important but, just like any relationship, there needs to be give and take. Your relationship with staff is a partnership. Unless you really take the time to provide certainty and support, you will never get the most out of your people and your performance will suffer. Some leaders know this and do take action, but only superficially; a bit of a tick box exercise, job done. This has the same effect. Your people know you don’t mean it and they will respond in kind. It is only when your words and actions are congruent that they will ‘feel’ that you really care. It is only then that you will see a performance difference. If your strategy is on focused on driving the numbers as your priority, you will be faced with resistance that limits the very thing you are striving for. If, you focus on your staff, the numbers will look after themselves!

Your job as a leader is to get results through people so results revolve around your ability to develop strong relationships with your team, customers and stakeholders.

Relationships can be hard work to maintain and enhance, particular when you are not all working in the same physical space. There is a movement towards recognising the current era of change as the ‘Relationship Economy’. This reminds us that whilst we are operating in a space of immense technological transformation it is the people and the way they interact (with and without tech) that defines success. This era is about focusing on using connections, trust and human interaction as its currency. It recognises that in a world where everything is connected, and mechanisation has reached a tipping point, the key critical differentiator for organisations between products and services are the relationships YOU develop. There is a common saying that ‘we are stronger together’. Never before has this been truer. Keeping up with the rapid changes we face as we recover cannot be achieved in splendid isolation. We learn, grow, challenge and explore better together.

What do your people need?

As leader, you need to create an environment that provides a safe and inclusive backdrop for performance. There are five elements to consider that give your people the comfort they need for high performance.

These are:

  1. Security: reassurance that the organisation has learnt from its experiences and is clear about how to recover.
  2. Safety: Clear boundaries and focus for their performance so that they know that what they are doing is adding value, safely.
  3. Belonging: A sense of fitting in again.
  4. Confidence: Building self –esteem, resilience and developing a confident/optimistic mindset.
  5. Context: A sense of understanding how the changes will impact them.

This isn’t rocket science and it doesn’t need to take up much time, but for those leaders who are focused on the numbers this attention to detail demands a shift in focus and habits. Our pointers will help even the most process-hardened leader to provide the reassurances needed to help their teams perform. Let’s take each one in turn.

  1. Have a team meeting in which together you explore what you have learnt about what works and what hasn’t. Be honest yourself what you think and feel to set the tone. Opening up this conversation builds trust and encourages individuals to define what is important to them about the way they work together. This acts as a bridge between where you have been, and, where you are heading. It allows each person to have a voice and be heard and to shape new, more effective working practices, together.
  2. The meeting allows you to establish new guidelines for the way you will work together and where you need their focus to be. These new boundaries need to be embedded into day-to-day habits with positive reinforcement and non – compliance must be tackled swiftly. Safety demands that you are present and observant. They need to see, hear and feel that you are on their side. No-one wants a return to the past twelve months.
  3. People vary in their levels of resilience with many irrevocably impacted by the pandemic. Some have found opportunity in the experience. Limited travel has meant they can be more present with their families and they might have found a new (and well loved) daily routine that is now disrupted again. Others have felt isolated and alone and some have been deeply affected by illness themselves or the trauma of losing loved ones. This difference can cause deep rooted friction if not acknowledged and explored. No single experience is the same and it is only by open acknowledgement and acceptance that team performance can be amplified and you can rebuild essential unity.
  4. People will be uncertain and some anxious. You need to work with individuals to help them build their self-confidence. Be clear about expectations and celebrate with them when they exceed these. It’s the time to be involved but not micro-manage. You need to carve out time for yourself and individuals to reflect. To reflect on what they are thinking, what they are achieving and how they are feeling. This process of reflection helps provide a compass by which to navigate change successfully and build towards the final stage in which you can thrive.
  5. Context: Being able to translate the post-Covid company strategy into one that your team understands will ensure that your people have a clear line of sight on which to focus their efforts. You can never assume people just ‘get it’ because a corporate communication has been sent out. You need to help them interpret this into what it means for them; what they focus on and how they work. You will be role modelling for your team so if you demonstrate your optimism and can-do approach this will filter through. If, on the other hand you are unclear or negative, this will further damage already weakened relationships.

The Importance of Reflection

As we said, none of these activities are rocket-science, but, if they aren’t already second nature to you it will demand planning to help your team embed these new habits. So as leaders, carve out time at the start of each day to plan how you can build and enhance your relationships with your team and key stakeholders. Then at the end of each day take five minutes to reflect on your actions and build on your success the following day (or to take remedial action quickly if needed).

Research at Duke University[2] tells us that around 45% of our everyday behaviours are habits. So, by making some simple changes to your daily habits you can quite easily carve out opportunities for improvement. This is game-changing. You can rapidly become much more effective without having to exert huge new effort on top of what you already do. James Clear reinforce this practically, in his book ‘Atomic Habits’. He encourages you to make lots of small changes to your habits. This makes change easy. You aren’t trying to be someone you aren’t. Instead, you are checking in daily and reflecting on what’s working and what’s not then adjusting according to your data. This is taking responsibility. By making little adjustments over time, this will lead to significant change that becomes second nature. The change that can bridge the gap successfully to allow your organisation to thrive.

Will you rise to the challenge?

[1] https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_740893/lang–en/index.html.

[2] www.today.duke.edu/2016/01/habits

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