The last year and a half has been filled with one shift after another. The novel coronavirus pandemic has changed our world. We have all been faced with adjustment after adjustment, shift after shift, as we discover new impact of the virus on our society. Work has been heavily impacted with many changes. Vaccinations are urged and occurring all across the world.
Now workers are beginning to return to the workplace to try to establish a new normal yet again. It is very important that leaders and managers understand the different feelings and realities that come with them.
Leaders are accustomed to playing many roles, wearing many hats. Here’s a new one for many. This pandemic has been absolutely tragic in the many ways it has touched individuals’ lives. Many of the people who return to work will be working through deep grief while they work. It will affect the dynamics of the team. If a leader is not naturally empathetic, he or she should surround themselves with others who can fill that gap. Sometimes a team member will need to be assisted to get counseling. Sometimes leaders will need to break up a meeting that has become too tense and full of conflict. Sometimes they will need to work to become deeply sensitive as they consider change to policies about such things as sick leave, working from home, time off, childcare to better fit the new realities and normal of their employees. Insensitivity in responses or decisions can break people and the company during a newly fragile time.
There has been an incredible, unexpected new direction because COVID-19 forced us into a remote working experiment. We learned that we can reduce costs and create greater efficiency by supporting more variety in the working infrastructure. Many workers have grown accustomed to eliminating the commute and spending more time with their family, so we must reconsider what the workplace will look like going forward. Most likely we will need to consider a more flexible format, less about dedicated offices and desks, and more about collaboration space, meeting, and large conference spaces. It will require a different kind of leadership, mindset, and and planning. These will be hybrid teams you are working with, and you will have to have two sides to your work streams. They will have their virtual teamwork, but you will also have to deliberately and intentionally bring them together on a regular schedule.
COVID-19 has also introduced us to the necessity of flexibility and adaptability. We are all faced with unprecedented uncertainty, so we must avoid the temptation to appear to be firm and decisive by sticking with our decisions. Leaders must be willing to regularly consider new data, information, and feedback. The information seems to change almost daily, and leaders have to be flexible enough to change course if the new information dictates. For instance, no matter what they have just spent weeks developing and what their schedule is for rollout, they will need to be mentally and organizationally ready to shift course if an outbreak occurs in their business or community. People must matter. Any delay in changing course for the good of people can have drastic consequences for the people and the business.
In the days of anxiety and uncertainty, it will be just as important for leaders to listen as to lead. Hierarchy and position matter less, and group opinion could actually lead the next steps for the organization. Instead of leaders debating among themselves the appropriate timing to open schools and businesses, perhaps customers and parents might be the ones to be the real decision makers. Can the businesses, schools, and churches reopen in the traditional sense if people don’t feel safe and simply refuse to come or to send their children? The decision about reopening is just one of many that are best made when the leader has his/her ear to the ground and is well aware of staff and client concerns, priorities, and ideas. While leaders will certainly still need to make hard decisions and won’t please everyone along the way, making decisions from a base of input is key. We need to keep in mind that there is a substantial difference between listening and waiting to talk. We must truly listen. We cannot simply listen to respond. We must listen to understand.
Leaders unfortunately often expect themselves to know everything and make perfect decisions, and others expect it of them as well. Truth is, they are just as human and liable to mistakes as anyone else. One of the biggest mistakes leaders can make is pretending they know more than they do or making decisions relying only on their “gut” or track record. In these new days, leaders will need to rely on expertise that they don’t have in order to make the best decisions for the organization. Humility will be required. It takes a strong, integrity-filled leader to respond to a challenging question with “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” It takes humility to step aside and allow an expert to answer most of the questions, but as this pandemic continues to affect us, that will likely be just exactly what is required of effective leaders.
There may have been a time when these traits could be considered assets, but not essential. That time is not now. This is a time of collective trauma, uncertainty, and inconvenience. These traits are required for leadership at home, at school, in business, at church, and every level of human interaction.