How the Pandemic Challenges Every Leader to be a Better Leader – LogiSYM September 2020
In the new world living with COVID-19, we need to work more collaboratively than ever before. Yet, that’s become harder as we navigate how to work separately.
Leadership styles have been forced to evolve fast. Organisations have learnt pretty quickly that to survive the pandemic leaders must connect and communicate regularly to their direct reports. Caring leaders and organisations have worked hard to ensure people’s emotional wellbeing hasn’t suffered during isolation. After all, it is pretty easy to feel disconnected and disengaged when you are working alone.
COVID-19 has given us a chance to reflect and review on our leadership styles and how we like to work. With the wonderful freedom of working from home, it’s unlikely that all employees will opt to be back in the office full time. Furthermore, employees will probably have less tolerance towards leaders micromanaging, not being transparent and bullying. This means that leaders really have to develop the capability to not only lead a dispersed team with employees working both at home and in the office, but unite everyone together. Any leader who believes that things will go back to normal when the pandemic is over will be sorely disappointed. That is why leaders who master how to build a cohesive team will be in demand in a post COVID world.
So how do you improve your cohesive leadership capability?
1. Start with Assessing Psychological Safety and Accountability
The first step is to actually take a look at how your team functions, in order to work out the steps you need to take to improve both team cohesion and performance.
Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business professor discovered that when there are high levels of psychological safety and accountability, they both collide leading to high performance. During the pandemic, psychological safety has taken a hit as we have all grappled with how to deal with uncertainty and rapid change.
Focusing on psychologically safety alone can be detrimental to teams and organisations. Leaders still need to hold people to account and demand high levels of performance. Too much of one or the other creates dysfunction.
Essentially, both psychological safety and accountability are modelled and managed by the team leader. It is my belief that this falls into four zones.
Achievement Zone – occurs when a team leader creates stretched goals and challenges for direct reports to improve. Many leaders approve small incremental improvements to goals. But a leader in this zone treats employees like athletes pushing them to continually improve – breaking their best records, not by a few degrees but through dramatic improvement. This only works when leaders lead by example, works hard to ensure the team trusts them and encourages team members to trust one another.
Anxiety Zone – Teams in this zone are high performing and can often be lauded throughout an organisation for their work ethic and focus on results. But they are psychologically damaging environments, as the focus is on outputs, rather than people. Employees are worked hard, criticised profusely and have little support from their leader or teammates. Typically, it’s a competitive environment where staff are pitted against each other due to the false belief that this will make them do better work. Stress and burnout are major issues in this zone. Employees often complain about ‘feeling bashed up’ when they present ideas at meetings. This zone is common in high-pressure environments such as IT, legal, finance and medical.
Abatement Zone – In this zone, leaders are often uncomfortable improving themselves and subsequently pulling people up for poor performance. This comfortable place is when leaders create psychological safety, but don’t hold their employees accountable for excellence. This is the confusing employee engagement result that points to high employee engagement in a team, despite poor productivity. In this environment, employees have no incentive to stretch themselves, be proactive or creative. Performance here is abating. Employees believe they’re doing a good job but have no desire to improve or even think differently. It’s where ideas go to die, people coast, problems don’t get solved and where groupthink reigns supreme. Interestingly, trust is also low in this team because team members can’t rely on each other to do a good job (but tend to accept it, unless they are young or ambitious).
Apathy Zone – When leaders create low psychological safety and low accountability, you will often find that employees are in conflict. This can be one of the riskiest teams to work in which results in employees not working too hard. Either because they are afraid of doing the wrong thing or they are too exhausted and burnt out. This is the result of authoritative, emotionally volatile leaders that are closed off to their direct reports who unwittingly create a psychologically unsafe team culture. This zone is incredibly low in trust and team cohesion.
2. Working your Way up the Cohesive Leadership Capability Ladder
Developing our cohesive leadership capabilities is a bit like moving up a ladder – gently coaxing people to follow us and demonstrating that we will be there for them. If you take the four zones and transpose them onto a ladder, you can see what skills you need to reflect on and how to improve trust with your people.
As you move up the rungs, trust, cohesion and accountability increase. At the same time, while team productivity progresses, leader effort starts to decrease. That’s because leaders have learnt how to delegate and lead their team in such a way that team members put in the right energy and commitment.
Down at the first rung or Apathy Zone, is where you find some new team leaders start off as they learn the team dynamics of an inherited team. Often, restructuring the team or placing an emotionally intelligent leader in charge is required. If you are put in charge of a team in this zone, you need to be willing to empower team members – providing autonomy where team members start to make small decisions and work on their own projects.
The Abatement Zone is a tipping point to moving into better performance. It is dependent on the team leader having those dreaded performance conversations. This requires leaders to energise performance by explaining to their direct reports the benefits of improving. This is critical because the team is often producing mediocre output that is pulling down the performance of the organisation.
At the Anxiety Zone, leaders must refocus behaviours through regular repetition of emphasising the importance of teamwork. Not only, leaders must learn how to extend trust to those around him. Because often trust issues are created from his own behaviour. This actually decelerates trust, as people hold back commitment to goals due to lacking trust in their boss or the situation.
Leading out of this zone requires a significant mindset shift. As the team is already performing at a high level, there is little incentive for improvement. Often, leaders in this zone will boast about their team’s progress and that trust is high. Not recognising that the culture creates high employee relations and turnover costs.
Finally, encouraging teams into the Achievement Zone requires a positive leader who ensures there is high trust, not just within their team, but across all teams and with everyone they work with. Leaders who holds everyone to high standards of behaving and performing – are a trust guardian.
Staying in this zone can be difficult. In my work with leaders, those who model curiousity and stay open to exploring new ideas create the excitement needed to stay on course. They focus on a positive future. The result is productivity that is five times the rate of average teams, but the performance is sustainable and doesn’t burn people out like in
Cohesive Work Environment
Getting teams into the achievement zone requires leaders who have the skills to not only creating a mentally healthy, supportive environment but who aren’t afraid to push people out of their comfort zones. It’s not easy. It does require leaders to improve their interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, allowing their technical skills to lessen in importance as they allow others to shine. In other words, they have the self-awareness and skills to build trust in their team – so employees trust them to do the right thing and can trust each other.
Interestingly, COVID has really pushed leaders to lead differently. It has accelerated leadership capabilities centered on caring more about their people. Human centric skills have risen to the occasion bonding leaders to their teams. During the uncertainty, savvy leaders have done what they can to put their people at ease. Spending more time learning about them, being compassionate to their situation and trusting that they are working. These are big steps forward and a turn for the better. And soon our next challenge will be continuing these leadership skills after the pandemic is over.