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What I’ve Learned About Leadership – Four Weeks into a Crisis

It’s been four weeks since “stay-at-home” caused most of us to transition to remote working. For some, like people in California, it’s been even longer. I’ve spent much of this time talking to leaders about managing in this new environment. Here’s what I’ve learned so far—four weeks into a crisis—about what it takes to lead […]

Photo credit: Depositphotos.com
Photo credit: Depositphotos.com

It’s been four weeks since “stay-at-home” caused most of us to transition to remote working. For some, like people in California, it’s been even longer. I’ve spent much of this time talking to leaders about managing in this new environment. Here’s what I’ve learned so far—four weeks into a crisis—about what it takes to lead successfully in this new landscape.

We’re facing a dynamic and unprecedented leadership challenge. Just as there continue to be many unknowns about Covid-19 (and what it will take to get back to some semblance of normalcy), there are also many unknowns about what it takes to lead an organization through this scale of disruption. I believe the most successful leaders will be the ones who pay careful attention and are able to learn, evolve and pivot along the way. Here are five principles I’ve been discussing with my clients thus far.

1. Start by establishing new workplace norms to create a sense of stability. For most organizations, there’s been disruption in day-to-day norms—how we collaborate, communicate and get the job done. That’s causing a lot of stress, and it adds to the stress most people are feeling in their personal lives, too. Leaders can help by establishing a clear set of new norms for the workplace. For example, there’s a proliferation of technologies for working virtually—Zoom, GoToMeeting, WebEx, text messaging, Slack, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, etc. However, this abundance of choice (combined with the likelihood that different people in your organization are using different platforms) adds to the sense of confusion and disruption. Leaders need to set new standards and expectations for how their teams collaborate in the new virtual environment. “Which videoconferencing platform should we use?” “When should we have a videoconference vs. a conference call?” “Should we be sending text messages or using email?” These issues may seem like small details, but they’re not. They’re really about re-establishing a sense of predictably and stability in the workplace. Take the lead in establishing new norms and expectations for your organization to collaborate, communicate and get the work done.

2. Don’t make assumptions about your people’s ability to work effectively a virtual environment. It’s natural to assume that your highest performers in the prior work environment will also be the highest performers in the new virtual environment; that’s a risky assumption! Working effectively from home requires a different set of skills—more autonomy and independence, comfort with being alone, better skills at self-organizing, the ability to focus and resist distraction, a productive physical work environment at home, and more. The fact that one of your colleagues was a “rock star” when working in the office does not necessary mean that he or she will be as productive in a virtual environment. Let go of assumptions, take the time to notice who’s adapting well and who may not be, and provide additional guidance and support where needed.

3. Any existing problems in your culture will likely escalate, so be vigilant. The sudden catapult into this virtual environment tends to exacerbate whatever organizational challenges existed before. For example, if colleagues didn’t communicate well before, communication is now harder, so the problem will likely get worse. If there was a problem with employee engagement, now that people are working from home, engagement will likely decline even more. Now is the time for leaders to pay extra attention to whatever “cracks” they’ve noticed in their organizations in the past, and take intentional steps to make sure the cracks don’t widen into canyons.

4. Good communication is more important than ever. Encourage your people to think about their communication choices. Here’s a framework I’ve given my clients for years: I call it the one, two and three dimensions of communication rule, and it’s even more important now. Whenever you need to communicate, think about how many “dimensions” of communication you need. Written communication is one-dimensional—you only have the words on the page. A phone call is two-dimensional communication, because you have both the words and voice inflection to communicate your message. In-person communication (or videoconferencing) is three-dimensional, because you have words, voice inflection and body language. In general, the more complex or emotionally charged the situation, the more dimensions of communication you need to leverage. Most of us have seen cases where people got into a misunderstanding over email that could have easily been resolved with a face-to-face conversation. That’s because they defaulted to one-dimensional communication, when they needed three dimensions. Now that many of us are working virtually, it’s easy to default to fewer dimensions; and at a time when we’re all operating under more stress and uncertainty, that can be disastrous. Encourage your people to be mindful of the message and think about when they need more dimensions of communication. When in doubt, pick up the phone, or (better yet) set up a video chat.

5. This is a time to focus on your “people” skills. Perhaps most importantly of all,leading in this new virtual environment is more challenging because much of the human-to-human contact that is vital for engagement has been lost. For example, if you practiced “management-by-walking-around” or had an open-door policy, that’s gone now. At the same time, the stress, disruption and isolation that most people are feeling increases the need for human contact. As a leader, you need to replace at least some of what’s been lost, which means focusing on your people skills. Increase your visibility, communicate more often and look for opportunities to engage more with your employees. This is a time when (despite working from home) you should make more of an effort to connect with your team, check in and ensure that they know you’re available. Above all, make sure your people know you are there for them as we all navigate this difficult time.

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