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“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the
opportunity in every difficulty” – Winston Churchill
The chances are strong that all leaders will find the need to help people face difficulty and adversity. Whether it's a global pandemic, an industry crisis, a local disaster, or a more specific challenge, it's essential to be flexible and responsive. What matters most when leading in a crisis such as COVID-19? Here's what the research says…
1. Check-in on work meaningfulness.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents challenges beyond health and safety. Changes to work norms, how people collaborate, and organizational priorities have impacted teams across the globe. Of particular concern, the pandemic is impacting work's meaningfulness21 by reducing connectedness, raising futility in a variety of tasks and jobs, changing boundaries and the balance between work and personal/family life, and growing concerns over safety and health, work stability, the economy, and the dynamic and unpredictable nature of this crisis.
Shifts in work meaningfulness are significant22. People have a deep need for purpose and meaning. In a recent study, researchers found that work meaningfulness changes are detectable in the brain's neurological activity during task performance33. The research showed that when there was a loss of meaning in work (e.g., sudden task termination), participants increased their pursuit of meaning in later tasks. Researchers call attempts to restore lost meaning the Meaning Maintenance Model—an ongoing search for meaning and purpose.
A lost sense of meaning and purpose in work leads to employee cynicism, mistrust, and negative behaviors6.
Leaders can restore meaning, align teams to the organization's mission, and find best practices that promote purpose. Meaningful work supports positive work attitudes and helps people connect their work with higher-order goals, values, and needs18. Employees who perceive work as meaningful9:
- Perform their best. When we perceive that our work has an impact and positively affects others, we work with integrity, find satisfaction in our jobs, and offer our best.
- Engage deeply in their work. Work meaningfulness and engagement share a positive relationship that influences job performance, satisfaction, and commitment.
- Commit to the team and organization. Employees who commit themselves to the team exert higher efforts, remain with their team and feel a stronger connection with their team members and the organization's purpose.
Strategies for shaping (or reviving) the experience of meaningful work:
- Affirm how work experiences serve and fulfill purpose; state (or remind people of) the compelling mission for your organization, prompt sharing about how work impacts customers and coworkers, and connect people to their work outcomes.
- Help people express their full potential; reinforce autonomy, recognize good work, highlight achievements, and listen to suggestions.
- Create work where people develop and become their best selves; offer learning opportunities, empower people to expand skills, and guide personal growth.
- Build team unity; define and model your organization's core values, enable people to develop a rich network, and foster a workspace for people to relate beyond work tasks.
2. Prepare teams for change during difficult challenges.
When faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations went as far as to reframe their vision and mission, redesign products, services, processes, and attempt to adapt and manage the effects of the pandemic1. This crisis has opened up awareness of the need for planning, preparedness, and going beyond reactive survival to engage in positive change to shape the organization's future.
Engaging change brings its own set of challenges. Still, when people align and work together to form a proactive resilience mentality to face a pandemic (or any crisis) a challenge such as a pandemic becomes an opportunity for organizations to evolve, grow, and thrive.
Look for opportunities for positive change in areas such as job design and job crafting. Research shows that teams thrive in change when leaders and job design promote:
autonomy and decision-making31
strong social support and team connections31
flexible work culture13
clear information sharing29
sufficient resources and capabilities31
Job crafting allows jobs and tasks to shift to help people reframe their work’s purpose and meaning35.
3. Address loss and inertia.
The idea that “change is hard” is widely accepted, and so is the idea that “people resist change.” But a closer look shows that it isn’t change that we resist - it’s loss. Even positive changes often come with some loss. Resisting loss keeps us stuck and hinders adaptive forward movements.
At work, change often brings an actual or perceived loss of power, autonomy, connection, comfort, pay, or security. Any crisis can raise fears of loss in these areas or others. Leaders can bring teams together, acknowledge real losses, share information related to feared losses, and collaborate on action plans to mitigate and respond to changes. It's possible to move forward together even in the face of tremendous difficulty when teams engage proactively with a crisis and work together20,23.
During any change, team members come from different situations and mindsets24. In a crisis, this is also true. To engage team members in positive adaptive moves, healthy coping, and in working together to navigate a crisis:
- Build trust and psychological safety with transparency and open communication
- Identify the losses and fears that are worrying team members with patience and empathy
- Encourage team members to work together to face and overcome challenges
As a team, here are some strategies to consider during adverse times to keep moving forward:
- Give teams a voice and listen closely17
- Support stress relief30
- Offer as much flexibility as possible14
- Cultivate as much emotional support across the team; you're in this together15
People differ in responses to change, so don't expect uniformity. Expert guidance helps teams navigate loss and change, realign, and move forward by overcoming change resistance together.
4. Prepare a purposeful workspace—physical or virtual—that honors psychological needs, not just physical safety.
Widespread crises often rally experts to provide fast guidance and resources for leaders searching for solutions and options. However, it's easy to develop tunnel vision during a crisis and become singularly-focused on the main concern5. For example, in response to a global pandemic such as COVID-19, health concerns dominate. To truly support organizational resilience, think broadly about team needs.
Physical and Safety Needs
Various global infectious disease pandemics have generated many ideas and studies to identify best practices and strategies for healthy workplaces. A study of the Healthy Workplace Project showed that simple solutions can mitigate risks. Providing hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, facial tissues, and general training to teams significantly reduced contamination in office settings26. Many experts address health and safety strategies for workplaces:
Germiest Places in Your Office32
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)—Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers8
Hierarchy of Controls7
Advice for the public on COVID-1934
The Risks—Know Them—Avoid Them3
To build organizational resilience in the face of a crisis like COVID-19, it's vital to look at psychological factors and other concerns people have, such as emotional distress, job needs, and team members' ability to communicate2,25. While many worries may be shared, others may be more individualized. It's critical to talk with people to learn about hidden concerns or use a survey to poll for the most pressing challenges people face with work and beyond.
Leaders play a valuable role in inspiring team members to accept and engage in safe behavior at work. Research shows three paths to motivate people to work safely12:
- Operant Theory, which focuses on monitoring, reinforcing, and conditioning behaviors that impact safety. Goal-setting and timely feedback are common methods to support desired behaviors.
- Expectancy-Value Theory, which instills the belief that an expected behavior will deliver value or benefit. For instance, using training, signs, and other means to connect benefits and risks to safety behaviors.
- Safety Climate and Transformational Leadership Theory, which relies on leaders modeling safe approaches to work. Leaders who promote safety, follow safe best practices, and engage team members will inspire people to prioritize safety.
Creative solutions that upend prior norms may also be critical during a crisis. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many leaders found that shifting towards flexible work arrangements, including working from home, was essential to help teams flourish while mitigating risks.
5. Become better together with strong communication and adaptive moves.
Even during more certain times, achieving organizational change can often come from a series of intentional “adaptive moves”28. During a crisis that is full of uncertainty, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic, a flexible and adaptive strategy is especially valuable due to the unpredictable and dynamic context. Some organizations will step up and serve as models for a successful response, but, in a crisis, there is no "one size fits all" solution.
Leaders have the opportunity to promote organizational resilience, effectiveness, and impact. Despite there being no clear direction to entirely resolve all challenges, organizations can adapt. Focusing on resilience and evolving solutions—learning, responding, shifting, and adapting—is key.
- Establish an open leadership dialogue about the crisis and its impact on the organization, customers and clients, and team members10.
- Develop new processes and workflows to keep what matters most in focus and to keep teams safe25.
- Communicate regularly to help reduce anxiety and uncertainty and promote connection16.
- Listen using team, one-on-one, and survey conversations to understand the impact on people, learn their thoughts towards work and the crisis, gather concerns, and harvest ideas for adaptive responses4,11.
- Create strategies to build up team bonds and camaraderie19,27.
Crises that impact our organizations, work, and communities create challenges. For example, the global COVID-19 pandemic caused an instant demand for social distance that sent many people from the office to working from home overnight. With ongoing strategizing that prioritizes adaptive responses to the unfolding situation and strong two-way communication, leaders have the incredible opportunity to draw people together in meaningful work and shape a source of support, stability, and creatively forge a path forward.
Wanting to be transparent in a highly ambiguous and shifting situation (COVID-19 or otherwise)? Here's a template using an intentional survey conversation process to support your team's strong communication and decisions.
COVID-19 Employee Survey and Action Plan
For more information or to get in touch with us for more help: https://coetichr.com/contact/.
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