Leadership in the Age of Covid

Back in the halcyon days of 2015, well before any of us, except for Bill Gates, would have believed that a global pandemic was just beyond the horizon, McKinsey & Company published an article titled Decoding Leadership: What Really Matters. The authors were trying to answer the contested question of what leadership behaviors should organizations encourage?

Fast forward to 2020, and the findings are remarkably poignant, given the new normal we are all facing. According to the McKinsey study, four kinds of behavior determined 89% of leadership effectiveness, and the most critical behavior of highly effective leadership was in supporting others. The author’s description of that behavior is that:

Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.

The other three behaviors that had the most impact were; operating with a strong results focus, solving problems effectively, and seeking different perspectives. The economic volatility caused by the pandemic, as well as the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, has catalyzed the importance of these behaviors.

The emerging challenge for leadership now is how to support others as the pandemic continues with no definitive end in sight. I’ve been scanning articles of thought leaders on this topic and talking with leaders who are participating in developmental coaching with me, to get a sense of what seems to be most effective. Here is what works.

Building Resilience

Adopting the mindset of an optimistic realist is more helpful than sliding into denial about the impact of the crisis or forcing positivity onto adversity and suffering. The optimistic realist mindset seeks to accept what is and remains hopeful that we will get through this together. Economic insecurity, structural racism, and threats to health are very real stressors. Acknowledging our human responses as they are is an important first step.

It is also equally important not to dwell on the negative or worse to slip into unhelpful rumination patterns. Leaders can redirect and reframe their own and their teams thoughts and attention. Try acknowledging emotional responses, give people the space to sit with them and then redirect conversations to focus on the opportunities that are being formed within the turmoil and on the people making a difference.

Practicing gratitude for what we still do have is an essential element in building resilience. Try opening a meeting by going around the virtual room and inviting everyone to share what they are grateful for today. Similarly, ask the team to consider who they could offer support to this week, a co-worker, customer, or community member.

Searching for meaning in the challenges is also helpful. I ask clients, “Who do you want to be for your team through the pandemic?” and “How do you want to be thought of during this time?” These questions elicit insight and steer leaders into supportive actions that serve their teams. Regardless of the crisis and its impact, we can find meaning in our lives and support others to do the same. Try asking your team members similar questions in your 1:1s.

Adapting to the new normal with all of its constraints and stressors is the next step. To be effective, we should draw upon our strengths and act upon our values to steer us through. Here I might ask, “What strengths have you relied on previously to get through tough times?” or “What values might you draw upon to guide your actions?”. Here we are focusing on our purpose. Our why. Our North Star. Try guiding a conversation on purpose in your next team meeting or in your 1:1s.

Building Connection

As many knowledge workers continue to Work From Home (WFH)  it is crucial for leaders to build a connection with their team members to maximize relationship and belonging, whilst minimizing isolation and lack of organizational commitment. Practice asking open questions and listening to understand how people are coping. Be empathic, and ask what people need from you.

Depending on the situation, you could try variations of, “Sounds like it’s been really challenging with the kids going back to distance learning after the summer break. I really want to support you through this. What do you need from me?” Or, “It seems to me that you haven’t been your normal self lately. How are you coping right now?”

These questions can elicit strong emotional responses. Be prepared. Allow people to express themselves and their emotions. Create a psychologically safe place for people to be vulnerable. Validate their experience and offer support. If people aren’t forthcoming, then share the stressors that are impacting you to build connections. Remember, there is strength in vulnerability. Connect and support one another. We humans are stronger together.

Self-Care

It is crucial to focus our energy on that which is in our control. Introduce conversations about ways to practice self-care. Discuss nutrition, exercise, getting out of the house into nature, engaging in hobbies that bring joy and take us into a flow state, and recharging with restful sleep. These practices strengthen our response to stress. Be vulnerable and share what’s working, or not working, for you right now. Be curious and respectfully draw out your team members on what is effective for them and encourage your team to make plans to take care of themselves and offer support.

Another useful practice is mindfulness meditation. Take a moment just to be and breathe deeply. Let thoughts come and go with no judgment. Be present in the here and now. If you start to engage with your arising thoughts in your mind, then just go back to concentrating on your breath. Share this technique with your team. Try starting a meeting with a one-minute mindfulness meditation. Zoom fatigue is real. Just being is deeply restorative.

Setting Boundaries

Leaders are acutely aware of the struggle to achieve results against the economic recession caused by the pandemic. It becomes all too easy to work constantly from home in an attempt to deliver results. Pay attention to your current bandwidth. Note how many hours you are working a day for a week. Record how many hours you are spending on the self-care activities noted above. How is your work/life balance? Is it integrated in a sustainable manner?

To be productive and an effective creative problem solver, we must take time to decompress. Take a short break, just 15 minutes, and do whatever movement appeals to you most. Get away from the screen and walk around the block. Share how it makes you feel with your team. Ask team members to take short breaks during the day. Support your team to set boundaries and switch off. Even better model the behavior yourself.

Offer Support

The pandemic is truly a “crucible” of leadership, a test that offers opportunities for growth. Leaders will be well served by supporting their team to take the stance of the realistic optimist, to find meaning in the challenges, and to adapt to circumstances as they unfold. It is important to note that mental ill-health is on the rise due to the crisis. Leaders should be prepared to refer team members to the company Employee Assistance Program for counselling support as needed. Talk about anxiety, depression, and burnout and that it’s okay to not be okay at this time.

In the USA alone 179,000 people have died due to the pandemic. 5,800,000 people have or have recovered from Covid-19. Directly or indirectly, we are all impacted to some degree. We are all in this together. Offer support. That’s what the most effective leaders do.

3 Interpersonal Derailers Tech Leaders Must Address

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Complexity and Stressors

The current global pandemic has intensified VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) conditions and leaders of knowledge workers must adapt quickly to the threats and opportunities present in changing market conditions, whilst ensuring that collaboration is effective amongst remote workers and that people stay engaged and motivated to achieve results.

Shifting to work from home, trying to stay well, caring for and home schooling children, and navigating the “new normal” caused by Covid-19 has been highly disruptive. Leaders have also had to respond to issues of systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd. Effective leadership is crucial right now given these factors.

Whilst responding to the external threats created by the pandemic has been a priority for leadership this year, it is equally important for leaders to pay attention to how they are interacting and behaving, given the increase of stressors upon them. Interpersonal behaviors must be as effective as strategic responses to Covid-19 to ensure success.

Most of the tech leaders that I partner with, to coach on their leadership development, started out as software developers and were high performing individual contributors (ICs) that were duly promoted into people management roles and then rose into senior leadership positions. It’s a given that this is a highly intelligent cohort of brilliant technologists.

As they take on higher levels of leadership, they must operate in increasingly complex environments, where highly developed interpersonal skills become crucial to getting stuff done. In terms of areas for development, it is routinely the case that our focus needs to be on how they show up in the world as people leaders, as opposed to building their tech capacities further.

In this article I outline 3 derailing behaviors that cause a great deal of damage to working alliances and what to do about them.

1. Not Listening

The classic example I see is of the busy leader at leadership meetings multi-tasking and responding to messages from their direct reports. They tune out to the speaker claiming, “Just gotta unblock this. It’s really important.” The inference being that the speaker and topic is not. If you’ve ever been not listened to in this way then you know exactly what it feels like, totally disrespectful. It’s a guaranteed goodwill killer and goodwill does make the world go round.

The fix involves 3 steps. 1. Shut laptop. 2. Turn off cell phone. 3. Give full attention to the speaker. Easy. Well actually the 3rd component requires a great deal of effort and focus. Giving full attention demonstrates respect for the speaker and their task at hand. It’s basic civility. Listen to the words they are saying. And listen for the words they are not saying. Listen to how they are saying the words. Their tone, the emotion, their body language and facial expressions. Listen to comprehend deeply. What are they meaning? How do they see the issues at hand? What can be learned from their perspective? This is an active process that requires attention, empathy and practice. Listening well leads to insight, understanding and synergy. Working alliances can be strengthened through effective listening.

Another example is the leader so focused on articulating their latest brilliant idea on what direction to take with an upcoming project, that they are incapable of actually listening and hearing their colleagues. Often they believe they are listening, but when their colleagues are talking, they are just thinking about what they will say next and why their colleagues are wrong and they are right. This is such a common derailer amongst tech leadership.

The fix here is to practice listening to your colleagues without judging their perspective. Be present and curious. Again listen to both the words and how they are saying the words. Inquire further with open questions to better understand their viewpoint. Summarize the main points that they have made and ask whether you have got it right. Then put forward your perspective. Explain the thinking behind your proposal and why you think it is the way to go. Invite their feedback. Be aware of holding onto your idea and the need to be right. Collaboration requires us to consider how can we integrate one person’s perspective with another’s, to strengthen the overall approach. 1+1=3, right? Finally ask how can we move forward together.

There will also be occasions, especially in working with direct reports, where the leader is best served by resisting the urge to improve upon the ideas of those they lead. Sometimes we need to let others go with their plan to maximize their motivation to execute.

2. Reacting, Not Responding

The second derailing interpersonal behavior I see tech leaders fall into is reacting when triggered and behaving angrily, which causes severe damage to interpersonal relationships. We all have our buttons that get pushed in working with other people in fast moving workplaces. That’s a given. When over-stressed, we too often rise to displays of frustration, anger, and at our worst, even contempt for our co-workers.

I often see repeated patterns, where leaders slide into cycles of reacting unhelpfully to the behavior of others and then attempt to explain, minimize or justify their ineffectual behaviors. The example that comes to mind is the leader who loses their cool when things “go wrong” and speaks whilst overwhelmed with anger at their direct reports. Being triggered and letting them know what you really think, rarely brings about good outcomes. People either tend to rise up to match the anger or withdraw to avoid the confrontation. None of this is helpful. Regardless of how people engage or disengage, the leader has lost their composure and probably the respect of their direct reports for being out of control. This behavior destroys mojo and psychological safety in an instant.

Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence highlights the importance of self-regulation for leaders, as their mood directly impacts their team through the process of mood contagion. The idea being that the emotional state of the leader is transferable to the people around them. Moods are transferred through an open loop system at the physiological level. If a leader is prone to outbursts of anger, then this will be transferred to the team and a toxic culture will develop. It’s only a matter of time until good people start leaving.

Anger as a feeling is not inherently wrong. It’s an emotion, signaling that something important is at stake. Avoiding the emotion of anger is not helpful, just as the inappropriate expression of anger is not. Susan David’s concept of Emotional Agility suggests in part that we should pay attention to the rising emotion, yet distance our self from it by naming it. For example, rather than exploding in anger or thinking I’m so angry because of what someone did, it is more effective to consider that in fact I’m simply experiencing the emotion of anger. Then we can chose how to respond based on our core values. This creates the space to consider an appropriate response, rather than just reacting automatically.

Viktor Frankl held that:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In our example of the leader becoming triggered and speaking whilst angry, it is clear that they were reacting to the stimulus automatically. Often this is their default pattern of behavior. The fix here is to slow down and pause in the space after the stimulus, before they do anything else. Don’t talk. Don’t say a word when triggered. Just sit in the space and breathe. Let the feelings and thoughts arise and watch them pass. Our thoughts and emotions are transient. My personal technique is to breathe in through my left nostril and breathe out through my right nostril when I’m triggered. I learned this technique in a buddhist meditation program I undertook whilst still at law school. It works for me and for some reason makes me laugh too, which instantly takes the heat out of my reactions. Once we are composed we can then consider our response based on our values. It takes practice. And I’m still working at it 25 years later.

I’ll share this technique with clients and then try to set them up for success by seeking to habituate the new behavior. The most effective solution I’ve found is called if/then planning, as developed by Heidi Grant-Halvorson in her book 9 Things Successful People Do Differently. The idea is to plan exactly what to do when a certain situation arises. So in our example above, the leader could plan for their response to things “going wrong” so that they stop reacting with angry outbursts. An if/then plan might be: IF my direct reports bring mistakes to my attention, THEN I will breathe in and out, thank them for bringing it to my attention and focus on coaching them towards a solution and noting the learnings so the mistake is not repeated. It’s a win/win. Leaders can also set alerts to remind them to practice the if/then plan when meeting with others where there has been a history of outbursts. The alert acts as a cue to practice the behavior. When we are pulled in so many directions, it helps to have a system built in to remind us to experiment with adjustments to our default ways of behaving.

3. Being Too Competitive

The third derailing behavior I see tech leaders engage in is over indexing on competitiveness. Smart, successful people have often been highly rewarded throughout their lives for winning. They have received positive reinforcement from family and teachers for their grades at school and college, accolades and awards from success in competitive sports and then promotions, pay rises and increasing authority in the workplace for delivering results. They’ve been incentivized to win. There is nothing inherently wrong with this and leadership demands that we pay attention to results. The problem shows up when the leader is so conditioned to win, that they pursue it in every setting, oblivious to the damage it can cause.

When we see every interaction as an opportunity to win, then by default someone must lose. This behavior becomes toxic when we are engaging in ongoing, collaborative working relationships. Often the leader is unaware to the extent of the damage they are causing to productive and positive relationships.

We see this behavior in leaders who need to dominate discussions and who will argue the point, refusing to make valued concessions to their counterparts, in a war of attrition until they get their way. I once worked with a leader whose motto was “Nobody beats a Smith!”*. They were intelligent, successful and were being groomed to join the executive team. When I talked with their peers it became evident that people were avoiding engaging with them, developing work arounds to get stuff done without their involvement and forming silos to protect their turf from unwelcome intrusions. There was no collaboration at all. Smith was so conditioned to win that every interaction was a test for them to get their way, be right, and “win”!

The fix here involves getting the leader to understand that leadership is not about their individual successes, but about facilitating the success of their followers and that of their First Team, their peer level leaders. Seeking 360 feedback is useful to illuminate any blind spots and partnering with a trusted mentor or coach will enable self-reflection, commitment to change and accountability to follow through. After 6 months of coaching Smith’s motto shifted to “Nobody beats us!” They were finally operating as a committed member of their First Team and were back on track for promotion.

Integration

The VUCA operating environment, amplified by Covid-19, has caused acutely challenging times for leaders. As leaders consider how to manage the ongoing threats from the pandemic, they should also pay attention to any derailing interpersonal behaviors. The 3 common derailing behaviors identified in this article of not listening, reacting not responding and being too competitive, can be replaced with effective behavioral adjustments that build relationships, social capital and ensure that stuff really gets done as we face the new normal together.

Please reach out with any questions or comments to -contact@glennduhiggcoaching.com

Wishing you well, Glenn.

*You guessed it. Smith was not their real name. It was Jones… Client details have been changed to maintain confidentiality.