Q: What are the best ways that leaders can help employees navigate these difficult times?
A: Our work lives are being upended, from risk-taking by essential workers, to juggling work and family life, to not working at all. There are many commands coming at us: socially distance, stay home, close down and open up. These are jolts that lead to uncertainty, stress and, ultimately, a way forward.
As a leader, how do you deal with these jolts or commands? Do you immediately accept them and move forward? I admit I often try to distract myself from what I have to face. Others, especially front-line workers, must jump in feet first without having a moment to reflect.
Leaders would benefit from understanding the places along the change journey that every one of us needs to visit. Organizational change author William Bridges says the journey’s landmarks include endings and loss, a “neutral zone” and new beginnings. The steps don’t always happen in sequence or with perfect timing.
Today, we are not just grieving the lives lost to this horrible pandemic, but we are also grieving the end of “how things used to be.” If you are a leader facing resistance and resentment, it is important to acknowledge your own feelings or create a ritual to mark an ending. For example, an organization I worked with that went 100% virtual set up an “appreciation board” to say thank you to co-workers who helped them throughout their in-person office lives.
Bridges also explains that everyone experiences what he calls a “neutral zone,” a time that can be full of turmoil, confusion, chaos and hopefully reflection. As a leader, do you have a way to build in reflection time? Can you set up time in meetings or establish a feedback channel for listening to concerns? It is important to provide consistency and reassurance. It’s OK to be repetitive, because employees cannot always hear while their minds are full of their own worries.
Finally, how can you help your employees get to a “new normal”? Rewarding positive behaviors and recognizing that employees may be going slow or fast during their transition process are important leadership considerations. Then, be ready for the next shift, jolt or ending.
Rama Hart is an associate professor of management at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.