Leaders are being challenged to rewrite their playbooks and question what good leadership looks like in times of crisis.
Through good leadership, leaders can help their people step up, step out, and connect to achieve a common purpose, even in uncertain times.
In conversation with leaders across our community, and through my research and teaching at the University of Tasmania, I have distilled three key lessons to help leaders connect their teams in new and meaningful ways during COVID-19 and beyond. The first lesson is for leaders to acknowledge the human element of our 'new normal'.
As the division of work and life increasingly blurs, leaders should aim to understand and dismantle barriers and leverage strengths to better support the people they lead. But it can be daunting for people to get personal within the professional domain and open up about their needs.
Leaders can use conversation-starter tools such as the My COVID User Manual to encourage discussions amongst their teams. The tool invites individuals to reflect on questions about working from home environments, struggles, loves, communication preferences, and self-care practices. The key to maximising the benefits of such conversation lies in the leader being willing to be personally authentic and at times vulnerable. Leaders set the tone. It takes courage to be real, to make yourself vulnerable.
But when a leader does so, it builds trust within the team creates the space within which to connect more meaningfully. Within such a space, team members are likely to follow the lead. Glimpsing each other's lives and realities creates an increased sense of connection and shared experience; two-dimensional colleagues can suddenly become three-dimensional workmates.
The take-away for leaders? Be the first to open-up. Be courageous in sharing your whole self and be curious about the people behind the faces of your colleagues.
The second lesson is to create new and productive rhythms for work, in response to substantial shifts in work practices.
We are seeing a shift towards more regular meetings, often weekly, involving all team members across the wider organisation. Physical distance is no longer a barrier to participation: geographically dispersed teams that may have met only a handful of times are now coming together online more frequently.
These regular points of connection are important. People like to remain informed of changes that affect their work life. Leaders are advised to focus their meeting agenda e.g. COVID-related issues and subsequent updates and changes to operating procedures. In acknowledgement of the popularly coined phrase 'Zoom fatigue', meetings should be limited to 30 minutes.
The expected outcomes of short and focused communication include: reducing potential uneasiness, providing a sense of togetherness, and fostering connection across the broader team.
Leaders could also consider encouraging staff to use their work-provided tools for non-work-related tasks. For example, at some organisations, workmates are encouraged to use their laptops and Zoom accounts for social catchups, like Friday night drinks. When living through times of crisis, such as COVID-19, people tend to form strong bonds through conversations around a shared experience. These friendship bonds can lead to support structures that will likely be carried back into the workplace when doors reopen.
The take-away for leaders? Connect by communicating more frequently in regular focused time slots and encourage staff to use communication tools to build social connections.
The last lesson relates to being there, even when you can't be there. Social distancing means leaders can't always be there to support staff members in need. But simply letting your team know you are thinking of them, that you care about them, and are available to talk can go a long way. Caring deeply, even when you can do nothing, helps strengthen connections.
The takeaway for leaders? Tell your people you care. Then tell them again.
Underlying each of the lessons above is the need for leaders to maintain their wellbeing. Leading is a demanding task, now more than ever.
Perhaps the most important take-away for leaders? Role-model self-care. Please, please make sure you are caring for yourself.
Sharing more of your whole self, communicating more frequently, making a point of making relationships, and caring deeply may seem outside the scope of traditional leadership roles. But these are not traditional times, this is the new normal.
Sharing more of your whole self, communicating more frequently, making a point of making relationships, and caring deeply may seem outside the scope of traditional leadership roles.
- Dr Toby Newstead, Leadership Scholar at The University of Tasmania