The COVID-19 pandemic changed the very fabric of workspaces in just a year. It forced businesses to function in an uncertain, complex and ambiguous framework. Under such circumstances, there is a desperate need for conventional practices such as command-and-control give way to more empathetic methods, so that employees’ who are dealing with burnout, loneliness or grief, as many are due to the pandemic, do not feel unsupported, says author Ruchira Chaudhary, in her book, Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership.
In the book, Chaudhary, who is an executive coach, and an alumna of University of Chicago Booth School of Business, writes, “Topics like grief are seldom discussed at work. In fact, more often than not, we don’t even know if we should discuss such topics. Leaders, mental health experts and coaches are now all telling us that it is okay to say you are not okay. Feelings of grief, loneliness and disconnection are real. It’s okay to respond by saying, ‘Actually, I am going completely crazy handling work, household chores, a young child and caring for the elderly.’
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this pandemic is the open-endedness of it. If it were a temporary state, we could say aloud, ‘This too shall pass, hang in there.’ If we knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and we would eventually emerge from the long dark tunnel and soon there would be bright sunshine, things would have been very different.
As a leader, it is a testing time for you. It is about maintaining the right balance and remaining focused on moving forward amid destabilizing uncertainty. That means helping your employees navigate complex emotions—grief, stress, loneliness—that most of us simply are not accustomed to in the workplace, at least at the scale we are experiencing now.
An article, published in Harvard Business Review, analyses the process of grief in detail.
‘Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It is not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed. Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.’
As Leaders, can we do our bit to steer our people to this stage, to the stage of acceptance? Leaders should help their people accept reality and find meaning in their lives, by coming to terms with that reality.”
Chaudhary’s book explores some of the key ingredients of impactful leadership backed by research and incisive insights. She writes,
“First, leaders need to build higher levels of resilience in themselves and their teams by taking charge of how they think about misfortune, crisis and adversity. Defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, or the ability to deal with a crisis situation or to quickly attain the pre-crisis status, resilience is perhaps the most essential ingredient in this leadership mix today.
Resilient managers need to be nimble and show swiftness in taking decisions (even when they do not know the answers) and move from analysis to a plan of action (and reaction). It’s about shifting your thinking gears from what caused this crisis to how we fix it. Essentially, it is about moving from cause-oriented thinking to response-oriented thinking where the focus is strictly forward-looking.
Defining the end goal or destination first and working backwards to execute the plan will help employees envision the future and is emotionally stabilizing, suggests Punit Renjen, global chief executive officer, Deloitte. He adds, ‘Throughout the pandemic, organizations around the globe have demonstrated remarkable agility, changing business models literally overnight: setting up remote-work arrangements; offshoring entire business processes to less-affected geographies; initiating multi-company cooperation to redeploy furloughed employees across sectors. In each situation, the urgency for results prevailed over traditional bureaucratic responses. These organizations managed to do this because of the resilience of their leaders.’"
Choudhary says that it is also important for the senior management to show trust in their employees, if they want better results. She uses research to demonstrates that trust yields real results in terms of economic growth, increased shareholder value and innovation, greater community stability and better health outcomes. She writes,
“‘From an employee perspective, consider that more than 60 per cent of workers say senior management–employee trust is paramount to their satisfaction. That’s because high-trust environments allow people to be their true selves, and when people can bring their whole selves to work, they are not only more creative, but more productive as well.’
Many leaders have done a phenomenal job of gaining this trust by deftly navigating the pandemic, despite the chaos, the unknown variables and the conflicting guidance at the start of the outbreak. They can continue to earn this trust by thinking of how they can rebuild a safe space for their people when they return to work (literally and metaphorically), how they stretch themselves to find the time to coach and guide in these uncertain times, and how they do their best to preserve jobs rather than cutting organization costs in the face of imminent losses.
Therefore, trust is as important in a professional relationship as it is in a personal one. When leaders, despite their crazy schedules, find the time to check in on their people, they create with them a personal equation, based on trust.”
(The above excerpts have been used with permission from Penguin Publishers.)