Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve likely been asked to lead in ways you may never have before. Uncertainty stretches out ahead of us as the nation and the world transition during this time. The Japanese language has two characters for the word ‘crisis.’ One is threat/danger and the second is opportunity. How can you as a leader embody empathy for the concerns, worries and fears of returning employees, yet embrace the opportunity?
This article serves as an outline for leaders to help prepare themselves, their teams and their employees as organizations begin to return to the workplace amid the new circumstances COVID-19 has brought upon us.
Preparation is Critical
There are three Ps to keep in mind as you prepare for a return to the workplace.
- Position – How we finish determines where we begin. Determine what your starting position is? As a leader, your position is above the fray. Find ways to place yourself here.
- Perspective – What is yours as you prepare to move into this new phase of re-entry? One suggestion is compassion mixed with expansion. Meaning, the ability to entertain the variety of emotions your re-entering team may be facing while keeping your goals and boundaries in place.
- Purpose – What do you feel yours may be? One suggestion is creating and maintaining a work culture and atmosphere that is safe, where staff can be heard, yet remain accountable for deadlines and productivity.
Your position, perspective and purpose will be like a lighthouse. They will keep you grounded and help orient others.
Understanding Types of Change
As we’ve all become well aware, change is the one thing we can count on during this pandemic. However, there are different kinds of change.
- Imposed Change – Changes that happen to you, over which you have little or perhaps no control (i.e. quarantine mandates, policy changes, etc.).
- Designed Change – Changes that you decide to make and then attempt to implement; the main difference is that you have control or influence over the process (i.e. accepting a promotion, pursuing further education, marriage, having a family).
- Growth Change – Changes that you encourage or allow through your personal transformation (i.e. workplace changes you choose to support, relationships).
Ask yourself the following question, “What types of challenges do people experience during times of imposed change?” Think about the specific challenges of this virus, quarantine, shelter-in-place situation. What comes to mind? For you? For your returning staff?
Common responses may include uncertainty, uncontrolled expectations, levels of motivation, resistance to change, stress, frustration, fear, role ambiguity and maintaining productivity. These reactions to change are normal and to be expected. Validating these emotions in yourself and your employees will help with the re-entry process.
Distinguishing Change vs. Transition
Next, it’s important to distinguish the differences between change and transition. Change is external or situational (i.e. the new office, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy). Whereas transition is the internal or psychological process people go through to come to terms with their new situation. Change happens to things and transition happens to people.
|Circumstances||Emotions & Thoughts|
|Outcome Focused||Process Focused|
|Often Rapid||Usually Takes Time|
Right now, you’re leading your team and organization through a transformative time in our society. Many of us are going through several changes and transitions. As a leader, know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. Do what you do well, empower and value others, have a positive attitude toward others and establish trust with your team. Know the direction and attitude in which you want to influence. People want leaders they can follow, especially right now.
Embrace adaptability. Change will inevitably happen as the trajectory of the pandemic continues to evolve. The status quo isn’t here to stay. So, what can we do as individuals?
- Understand that transition can be difficult. Therefore, people need to take steps to care for themselves and/or their families.
- Realize how someone’s thoughts and feelings about an event may determine their actions.
- Control what you can and release that which you can’t.
- Maintain connections at work and in personal life that help support and re-energize you.
- Realize that even in tough times, it’s necessary and beneficial to the organization and one’s career to continue to do good work.
- Maintain perspective. Realize that even if the change brings about a great deal of challenge, there are always ways to advance and grow.
- Adaptable people rely on inner personal resilience and believe they have the skills and resources to make the change.
Resilience is the human capacity to deal with, overcome, learn from or even be transformed by adversity. It’s the ability to “bounce back” or be flexible in the face of adversity. As a leader, you can also encourage resiliency by summoning the traits we most admire in other agents of transition.
Transitional Stages & Action Plans
Understand where you are and those returning under your headship. Below is a graph showing the emotional transition people make in response to upheaval or change. Keep in mind that no two people respond and transition to change in the same way, it’s a highly individual, personal process.
The Stages of Transition model (adapted from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, resulting from her work on personal transition in grief and bereavement) describes the four stages people typically go through as they adjust to change.
When a change is first introduced, people’s initial reaction may be shock or denial as they react to challenges to the status quo (Stage 1).
Once the reality of the change starts to hit, people tend to react negatively and move to Stage 2, resistance or fear. Commonly in this stage, people feel angry and actively resist or protest against the changes.
Stage 3, exploration, is where pessimism and resistance give way to some optimism and a willingness to explore.
By Stage 4, people have come to accept the changes and start to embrace them. They rebuild their ways of working. Only when people get to this stage can the organization really start to reap the benefits of change.
It’s important to realize that people may vacillate between stages. For example, they may get information during Stage 3 that feels threatening and move back to Stage 2. In addition, people may get “stuck” in a stage, especially Stage 2, and possibly never move to adaptation. Or, if the change is welcomed, people may move straight to adaptation.
How people respond is directly related to factors such as their personal history with change, the amount of support they feel and their ability to adapt. Your returning team members could fall anywhere along this continuum.
As an action plan, look at the stages in the chart below and brainstorm ways to meet people in each phase.
Feelings of Helplessness
As a leader, focus on strengths and let your employees know you noticed. Encourage exemplary attitudes. Look for ways to highlight and support the positive ways your team is coming together. Finally, model what mindsets and actions you want to be emulated by your team.
Implementing a Paradigm Shift
A leader’s mindset or perspective is a centerpiece to leading, especially during unpredictable situations. Getting others to follow or buy into your mindset is key.
Below is an example of a paradigm shift that can be implemented now as you begin to transition into the new phase of re-entry in your workplace.
|Old View||New View|
|Manage Time||Manage Energy|
|Avoid Stress||Engage Stress|
|Life is a Marathon||Life Is a Series of Sprints|
|Downtime Is Wasted||Downtime Is Productive|
|Reward = Performance||Purpose = Performance|
|Ungrounded Optimism||Realistic Optimism|
Manage Energy – The key position is to always “Be Fully Engaged.” This means you’re able to immerse yourself in the mission you are on, whether that is grappling with a creative challenge at work, spending time with loved ones or simply having fun. BE. THERE. FULLY.
Engage Stress – In this new way of looking at balance, stress is a necessary condition of growth. No stress means no growth.
Life is a Series of Sprints – We need to consciously oscillate between stress and recovery much as the athlete sprints and then cools down. Expanding long-term capacity requires short-term discomfort.
Downtime Is Productive – Tending to our physical energy through proper rest, diet, exercise and breathing is productive and wise. Treating emotional recovery time as sacred builds the reserves necessary to face change.
Purpose = Performance – Are you connected to the importance of a purpose, a reason to live, get up and do what you do, be who you are? And what of those special gifts do you bring to the world?
Realistic Optimism – Being truthful and compassionate with ourselves and others and accepting our limitations reduces our defensiveness and frees us up for positive action. If you have a great amount of trust and there’s a culture of trust within your workplace, you can afford to be more expansive in your optimism. If, however, trust is low, it is best to stick to the facts. Site sources and let your team know when you will update them next. Expansive optimism could undermine your credibility in this last case.
Focus on Energy Management
Your availability is your currency right now. You are not so much managing time as you are energy. Energy is renewable but it’s central that you know what renews you and your employees physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Everything that we do, from interacting with colleagues and making important decisions to spending time with our families requires energy. Sometimes we forget this. Energy may be lean right now, as many are spending it managing emotions and uncertainty. So it’s all the more important to know where your energy meter is.
Be Present Physically – When we are present and fully engaged with whatever or whoever is in front of us, we have energy and resources immediately available to us, unlike when we are distracted and trying to cover too many realms at once. With re-entry, physically present means being visible and accessible. Walk the office space, have an open door for drop-ins and check-ins. It also means knowing your company’s resources. When the situation is beyond your scope and field, where do you go? Where do team members go? What additional resources are available right now that may be new or unique to the COVID-19 situation? Knowing help and intervention options equips you and your team.
Be Present Mentally – Mental capacity is what we use to organize our lives and focus our attention. Mental muscle routines that will help you in this area include exercising your mental preparation (focused and aware of where you are, where you are going and what you may be speaking on), visualization (seeing yourself, your team coming together, processing and moving forward) positive self-talk, prioritizing and focusing on tasks according to peak energy times not always based on the clock and finally, creativity (work in some fun). Remember what it’s like to be mentally depleted. It’s in this state that we become open to distraction.
Be Present Emotionally – In order to perform at our best, it’s wise to access positive emotions such as enjoyment, challenge, adventure, opportunity. The key “muscles” fueling positive emotional energy are self-awareness, self-confidence, self-control, social and interpersonal awareness, empathy and emotional intelligence. Any activity that you find enjoyable, fulfilling and affirming, serves as a source of emotional renewal and recovery. Know them and practice them.
Be Present Spiritually – Spiritual energy provides the force for action in all dimensions of our lives. It fuels passion, perseverance and commitment. Spiritual energy is derived from a connection to deeply held values and a purpose beyond our self-interest. What is the muscle here? Character. The courage and conviction to live by our deepest values is the key muscle that serves spiritual energy.
As a leader, you are an energy manager, first for yourself and then for your employees. We began this article by suggesting that time is fixed, however, your energy is renewable. Wisely renewing your inner resources physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually yields full engagement. This is an empowering position as a leader.
Your team wants to be led right now. They are watching, waiting and wondering. Model what you want emulated and what you want to be replicated. Be flexible and bend with the changes. Don’t be beholden to a highly specific outcome. Space is your friend, it’s for the unexpected, for voices to be heard, for safe ways of operating and reaching goals. Create boundaries around time, personal space, deadlines and expectations.
In a shifting landscape, your team wants to know where they stand, and if possible, where they are headed in the weeks, months and even years to come. Being available and visible as a leader will help with re-entry and so will your words. Choose them wisely. They create the climate you and your team work in and create in. Words help build worlds. We are all in a phase with a great opportunity, not only to recreate a healthy world but to thrive amid change and transition.