How will people in organisations be feeling as we emerge from the pandemic? It’s an important question for leaders if we want to come out stronger, wiser and more resilient.
I’m choosing to focus on strength, wisdom and resilience because I see them as crucial to our ability to recover ourselves, our work and our performance. (I might have added ‘relationships’ and ‘culture’, but I covered them previously in this series here and here.)
One of the key influences over ‘what comes next’ will be our old friend ‘Human Nature’. We all know it exists, we all have it ourselves and yet still we repeatedly make decisions and choices that suggest we have forgotten about it. We know it is human nature that many people will touch the ‘wet paint’ sign on a door to see if it’s wet, but still we put up the sign, knowing that it won’t work and may even have the opposite effect to the one we need or intend. Like expecting drivers to observe a 20mph reduced speed limit around a school entrance during the school holidays or a 40mph one on a country road at 4am.
Bearing that in mind then, we need to make choices that take into account what we know of human nature. We also have to be clear what we are trying to achieve, and design our actions to achieve the true purpose, not simply crack on with action for the sake of action or because someone might be watching to see if we’re ‘being decisive’.
So let’s take these three factors in turn.
Strength: have your people’s back
Strength is only a virtue if appropriately and wisely deployed. Just being tough is no help if it also means being pig-headed, intransigent or blind to reality.
I believe leaders need the strength to:
- Stand up for what they believe is right (even if that means opposing the desires of their senior leaders, when they believe them unfair, unwise or inhumane)
- Show confidence that things will be okay, but also the vulnerability to show when they themselves are not okay… and that that’s okay. Okay?
- Have confidence in their people and their ability to return to high performance, yet be vigilant to be ready to support, advise, counsel and adapt when their people need it.
Wisdom: remember what your people have achieved without ‘supervision’
We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and each other in recent months. We’ve seen so many people being quietly heroic, stepping up and supporting others, working diligently without supervision or even much support, coming up with ideas and often performing way better than we feared or even anticipated. We cannot now return to any form of ‘normal’ and just pretend that none of that happened. I don’t just mean that we should recognise and reward that performance and commitment – though we certainly should – but that we should entirely redesign our approach to organisations. We have just proved that our good people work at least as well and often better without the oversight and often interference of their ‘boss’. Our senior leaders have often been entirely disconnected from the operational realities (nothing new there) and everything has carried on without them.
So what does that mean for the role of a manager, leader or supervisor? Writers and thinkers like me have been banging on for years that we need to transform the way we lead and manage. Here is a magnificent opportunity to do just that. We have permission now to change anything and everything. We will encounter very little resistance and people will be expecting and ready for change. We can remove unhelpful ways of working, restructure and reorganise how we work, change people’s jobs, transform our leaders, upskill for a new normal, gain all the benefits of the technologies we often feared and didn’t really understand but now often embrace – so many amazing opportunities.
But let’s not forget good old human nature… Many leaders will have a strong desire to go back to the way things were, to return to their comfort zones and their old privileges, to go back to being an overseer and hiding in meetings with minimal output. Getting ‘back to normal’ will exert a huge pull.
Wisdom says that we know better now. We need to use what we’ve learned to create a better organisation with better jobs, better skills, better people and better performance.
Resilience: but your people aren’t superhuman
We have been sorely tested. We have – in the main – come through it. The vast majority of organisations have survived, some have even prospered. We have proved to ourselves that we can withstand even something as terrible as a global pandemic, the daily threat of illness and death, the total disruption of our lives and the complete cessation of all normal activity. And yet we have mostly prevailed. If it is true that “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger”, as Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, then we are now very strong indeed. We need to bear this in mind in our future decisions, strategies and our attitude to risk. We should not take this as proof that our people are all superhuman or that their welfare can be disregarded – quite the opposite – but we know that, if they truly believe in the purpose and deeply, intrinsically want to achieve something, they will move mountains. We know this. Let’s use it to build better organisations, better jobs and a better society.
On CMI’s mental health and wellbeing hub you’ll find resources to help you build mental resilience – check it out here.
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