Thursday, April 2, 2020

Facing COVID-19 as Empathetic Leaders

Olivia Mohtady

Just like every business in the world right now, DWC Consulting are taking the necessary time and steps to contemplate COVID-19 and what it has yet to throw at us. As with many organisations, we are facing months of uncertainty and change. The physical, psychological and financial effects of the coronavirus will span private and professional life on a global scale, and leaders from all sectors may be feeling fearful and hopeless about what the future brings.

These feelings are completely understandable in the circumstances. You may find that emotions in your workplace (whether that be remote or otherwise) are running high. You may have already observed conflict, tears, tantrums and rash or poor decision-making amongst your colleagues. The consequences of this virus are hard on staff, hard on leaders, and indeed hard on everyone.

However, there is hope and there is opportunity in this seminal moment in human history. 

For one, the urgency and dramatic pace of this crisis will give rise to entirely novel ways of thinking. Organisations will be forced to change, to re-evaluate; to restructure their values and practices in ways they would otherwise not be inclined to. Self-awareness and integrity will be paramount for leaders and managers to successfully navigate the coming months. From that, we will all become better leaders.

Breakdowns and breakthroughs

Without challenge, there can be no growth. Some psychologists and philosophers have observed this phenomenon on an individual level; where a crisis or a breakdown that causes a person great pain can go on to inform independence, flourishing and personal growth that would otherwise never have been inspired for that individual.

Of course, there are many problems with this view, as humans are varied and limited in their tolerance for suffering. It is wrong to expect everyone to bounce back from a crisis as a newly formed person, especially without the correct support. But this is exactly why now is a perfect opportunity for us all to take a long hard look at ourselves and our organisations; particularly in the sense of the support systems and relationships that we now have every reason to build and give due attention to.

As with the societal level, where we all must work together to provide vital services for vulnerable individuals, to socially distance to protect our health systems and to give freely with our support to isolated family members and friends - a collaborative approach will also be crucial at the organisational level.  

We have no choice but to become stronger teams, to communicate clearly and confidently, to re-vitalise our systems and practices so that we can function in new remote settings. Despite our physical distance from our staff and workplaces, we will need to be far closer in our communication and functioning.

Learning from neuroscience

Luckily, we have very adaptable brains, which physically change in response to demands from our environment for different types of thinking. This is known as neuroplasticity and on a basic level means that we form new neural connections in our brains through particular actions or ways of thinking (e.g. learning to play an instrument will change the structure and function of various brain areas).

“Leaders work in the opposite direction…”
-Abraham Zaleznik

Key scholar Abraham Zaleznik proposes that chaos and crises force leaders to become creative and divergent in their thinking, which in turn makes them more effective and inspiring. In one thought-provoking article, Zaleznik emphasises that a managerial culture promotes rationality and control, which do have benefit to the organisation but lose their grip when unexpected events occur. Under distressing circumstances, what is needed is a culture of leadership which is intuitive and empathetic to the needs of staff, rather than the demands of ongoing projects.

The importance of empathetic leadership

At this point in the unfolding COVID-19 situation, staff will be looking to leaders more than ever for guidance, empathy and creative ways of working. The dissemination of clear advice and support will be even more critical in a remote workspace, and organisations may benefit from adopting shared leadership and distributed leadership models to ensure all staff are reached and supported; no matter their position.

The road to empathetic leadership is complex and built over years in an organisation’s culture. However, managers and leaders may like to consider the guidelines below as a starting point for informing trusting and supportive interactions in their virtual workspaces over the period of this epidemic:

  • Listen to your staff: Deep and intense listening aids communication and builds trust. Giving your staff time to share their worries, fears and ideas with you will help them feel reassured and have the mutual benefit of informing the key decisions that are made at senior levels.
  • Be concerned: Mutual care and concern between all members of staff in your organisation will strengthen your team and create an atmosphere of support.
  • Relationships first, policies second: It can be tempting to get bogged down in the detail of procedures, policy and process in times of uncertainty, but in a crisis situation especially, building relationships and trust within teams needs to come first. 
  • Keep in touch: Employees need and deserve more contact in this period of uncertainty, albeit over a video or phone call. Leaders should schedule regular conversations with their staff throughout the working week and encourage teams within their organisations to do the same. Not all conversations need to be formal meetings and some teams have merely been choosing to log on to a video call first thing in the morning to drink their coffee in the same virtual space or to chat about subjects unrelated to work.
  • Deal with conflict: Sometimes, there will be existing damage and decay in working relationships, which may be compounded by remote working as miscommunications can be more common in a virtual environment. If this is a concern for your organisation, mediation can be conducted remotely and we highly recommend that you visit our workplace mediation page. 
  • Maintain an inclusive culture whilst recognising and managing difference: Some individuals will be inadvertently more affected by the consequences of COVID-19, whether that is due to their financial or health status or a number of other possible reasons. Leaders and co-workers should be mindful and aware that some individuals will need extra support in a time when they might feel even more excluded.
  • Manage people: Individuals react in very different ways to adverse situations. Some may struggle to concentrate whilst others throw themselves into their work. Some may be emotional and desperate to connect, and others may be withdrawn and non-communicative. In a professional workspace, standards and expectations should be set for employee behaviour (e.g. turning up on time for virtual meetings, dressing appropriately for video conferences, meeting deadlines), but leaders must be flexible and make allowances for the idiosyncrasies that we all have. 

As you will have gathered, the key message behind all these points surrounds the importance of staying connected. As with the whole world, working together and maintaining a sense of mutual social responsibility is the only way we will all get through this difficult time.

At DWC Consulting, we are keen to help organisations adjust to COVID-19 and improve their leadership approaches and workplace relationships. Please do get in touch to book a consultation to discuss your needs and concerns.

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