How to deal with COVID-19 culture conundrums

Confronting the brutal facts with honesty and openness is sobering as well as trust-building. When leaders don’t hide the painful bits but lay them on the table, it shows respect to others as well as reassures them that we are not blind to challenges, and are working through them, writes Zoë Routh

COVID-19 is causing all sorts of new management headaches. McKinsey & Company’s research from June 2020 shows that “more than 80 percent of respondents say the crisis is materially affecting their daily work lives.” The future is set to be more digital and remote too: 61 per cent of CEOs expect more remote collaboration and fewer people working in offices. (PWC, August 2020).

It means leaders need to get the culture challenges right soon. The blurring of lines between work and home has led to the muddying of expectations about what is appropriate and what is not. Engagement is waning while workers are remote. Staying positive is a battle for leaders as well as workers with the constant barrage of negative news. Staying healthy and sane as a leader is more problematic too while fielding complaints and other people’s anger due to extended restrictions. This kind of sustained anxiety can erode a once vibrant culture if steps are not taken to reinvigorate the energy and focus as well as put in place new work expectations. Here are 6 steps to getting your culture right through the ongoing pandemic:

  1. Negotiate new boundaries and expectations

The biggest concern many leaders had going into lockdown was trust. Would the staff do the right thing and get work done? While it turns out that productivity mostly increased for workers, some have started taking advantage of the situation. Sneaking in a few personal chores while on a ‘break’ has blown out to an implied to license to shape work routines to suit personal lifestyle. This may or may not be an issue, depending on the nature of the work. However, it is best if leaders meet with their direct reports and discuss expectations around work hours, being accessible, and fundamental requirements. An open conversation about what is acceptable and what is problematic, and why, helps strengthen relationships by letting each other know what the agreed guidelines are for remote working. Additionally, some workers are not taking enough breaks and their work hours have bled deeply into their personal lives. Treat this conversation as a well-being check as much as a workload and performance discussion.

Keeping staff positive is a key concern. It’s easy to fall into doom and gloom with negative stories saturating media, feeding our primal risk-averse brains.

  1. Redefine success

A few businesses are thriving while many are not. Buying cycles and sales results are stymied in many cases. For sales teams and results-oriented businesses this slow-down has had a deflating effect on morale. How do you feel successful if you’re not kicking goals? While results are always important as they signal the health of the organisation, when business is in a slow-down due to external forces like a pandemic, teams and individuals need new ways of feeling successful if they are not getting their usual dopamine-hit from landing deals day after day. Add some success measures that are process-driven, and not just results-focused. In a sales setting, this might be number of calls made, or number of outreach “I’m thinking of you” cards sent. Sustaining and recognising critical behaviours for the long-term prosperity of the business is essential during a slump.

  1. Do fear setting, not just goal setting

U.S. Navy SEALs develop a habit of scanning every new situation for potential worst case scenarios. This habit stays with them in civilian surroundings, long after leaving the service. They walk into a restaurant and immediately scan exit points, possible threatening individuals, and mentally rehearse what they would do should an attack take place. They prime their brain and nervous system for automatic response in a crisis by taking a few minutes to live through that crisis in their imagination first. While this sounds like a dramatic and fear-based way to live at first, it actually has the reverse effect. They feel prepared, and this is relaxing. Leaders can apply this wisdom to the business context. Fear setting is the process by which we imagine the absolute worst, and anticipate what we might do should it occur. For example, what would happen if the business made no new sales for three months? For six months? What actions would be taken? When would we have to take them? We can feel better knowing we’ve made decisions ahead of time should the worst occur.

  1. Educate, don’t cheerlead.

Keeping staff positive is a key concern. It’s easy to fall into doom and gloom with negative stories saturating media, feeding our primal risk-averse brains. Leaders make the good-intentioned mistake of thinking that talking positive will boost the mood. Confronting the brutal facts with honesty and openness is sobering as well as trust-building. When leaders don’t hide the painful bits but lay them on the table, it shows respect to others as well as reassures them that we are not blind to challenges, and are working through them.

Staying positive is a battle for leaders as well as workers with the constant barrage of negative news. Staying healthy and sane as a leader is more problematic too while fielding complaints and other people’s anger due to extended restrictions.

  1. Celebrate and recognise what IS working

While there might be a lot of challenges, there may be a lot of good progress too. We need to balance the dark experience of confronting the brutal facts with highlighting gentle improvements. Making this progress visible through a shared project task list, or milestone map, will help create a sense of momentum.

  1. Normalise the experience through sharing the neuroscience

Letting staff know that it is completely normal to feel anxious during times of uncertainty helps take pressure off needing to appear upbeat. Share neuroscience insights with staff: uncertainty, overwork, perceived unfairness, feeling isolated and excluded all trigger the amygdala’s fight or flight response. All the cortisol and adrenaline being released can cause poor sleep, hamper concentration, encourage impulsive eating or other mindless self-soothing activities like Netflix bingeing. Knowing these are common responses to the pandemic helps reduce anxiety around these symptoms.

In destabilising times like these, it’s best to go back to first principles: speak the truth, set clear expectations, show you care, and look after yourself.

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