Fuel for Leaders
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Fuel for Leaders

Photo by Lucas Stanley on Unsplash

Leading Through Uncertainty

Managing those Pesky Humans

One of the four less-than-autonomous students camped in our den has interrupted me for the zillionth time regarding his 3rd grade essay on Alcatraz Island. With the Governor threatening to shutter schools till the Fall, I’ll need a dose of supernatural patience to make it through.

Surely, I’m not alone.

Most folks are juggling roles in the classroom, lunchroom and spare room (serving as office portal). Stir-crazed kids, pets and antsy adults sequestered in close quarters elevates tension readings up the DEFCON scale.

Keeping a business afloat and our combustible teleworkers sane requires deft leadership skills. Ideally, we’d only have to manage the logical, rational side of staffers. Unfortunately, today’s heightened emotional state means leaders must navigate the imprudent, fretful, human element as well.

Aarghhh, those pesky humans!

Our [emotions] continually infect our thinking,” noted Robert Greene in The Laws of Human Nature. “We are not necessarily thinking machines,” said neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “We are feeling machines that think.”

Feeling machines?!

People are social beings.

We are neurologically wired to form tribes, partly for protection and partly to fulfill communal needs. By nature, we look to groups for attention, acceptance, affirmation and approval. A sense of belonging is essential, established by connecting with one another. These bonds are the cohesive glue needed to build successful teams.

If one’s status in the clan is jeopardized, insecurity sirens wail, followed by a flood of anxiety. Being cast out or isolated is a primal fear for each of us. In fact, stress-related studies show, “The highest rise in cortisol levels — the hormone responsible for ‘fight or flight’ response — occurs from threats to one’s social acceptance, esteem or status.”

Understanding our genetic coding illuminates the undercurrent of conduct, interaction and conflict at any workplace regardless of company values or culture. Fact is, much of what we experience day-to-day can be explained by our colleagues’ innate social design. Scary!

Fortunately, human dynamics can work in our favor. During a crisis, people instinctively huddle up, working collectively to defend the group. Thus, our workforce is looking for a unifying call, a cause to come together amid their shelter-in-place separation.

Leaders can tap this energizing force by addressing both the ‘Head’ and ‘Heart’ dimensions of the following areas:

1. Cause: Reinforce the firm’s Mission and Purpose to uplift and inspire the organization.

Head: Regularly communicate “What we Do” to serve our customers amid their current challenges. Engage the team in developing a broader vision, to seize new opportunities and create innovations for the post-pandemic marketplace.

Heart: Redefine “How we Operate” with one another through a spirit of kindness and compassion. Grow closer together as a group by serving our colleagues before ourselves. Care for peers struggling with their at-home transition or facing personal hardships.

2. Clarity: A productive work environment starts with well-articulated expectations.

Head: Establish clear performance metrics as well as explicit ground rules for operating remotely. Agree on culturally apt choices for home offices, work hours, dress code, video call decorum etc. Reinforce regularly.

Heart: Define how teammates should interact with one another in these new work settings. Give grace to those with cramped residences, childcare challenges or tech limitations. Be patient, supportive and encouraging.

3. Concentration: Our brains work best during periods of uninterrupted concentration.

Head: Provide your organization with added structure to maintain focus. Offer tips for avoiding distractions at home. Recommend periodic screen breaks and walkabouts to refresh. Agree on parameters for “shutting off the office” to maintain proper work/life balance.

Heart: Without the pace and peer pressure of the office, some will struggle holding themselves accountable. Craft personalized work routines with these folks. Review deliverables in quicker intervals to help people stay on track. Publish achievements and celebrate momentum.

4. Connection: Social distancing drains companionship and disrupts team cohesiveness.

Head: Book regular team catch-ups. Keep scheduled One-on-Ones. Over communicate. Leverage collaborative tools to share information. Use live chat functions to handle urgent issues or quick responses.

Heart: Folks miss informal workplace gatherings. To supply extra socialization, hold virtual coffee breaks, happy hours and birthday parties. Play video games together. Check in frequently with one another to chat about the bright spots in this experience or just let others know they’re not alone.

The distress we all feel amid this pandemic exposes our irrational and bewildering human state. Managing organizations under these conditions requires sensitivity to both their ‘Heart’ and their ‘Head’. With this approach, any leader can leverage team members’ impulse to fight together for the firm’s future.

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Dave Smith

Dave Smith

Leadership Coach, Advisor, Dad of four, Novelist.