Findings about employee experiences of leadership through the Covid pandemic aren’t great news for national engagement levels. For example, a survey of 16,000 workers by Hays recruitment found that nearly half (43%) of respondees felt their leaders needed to improve communication, and a third said they have contact with their manager less than once a week. When we look at the nature of communication, a survey of 5,000 employees in May by People First on Twitter found that only a quarter of respondees (24%) discuss “health and wellbeing” as well as “performance and workload” with their manager. Both of these surveys point to rather worrying findings – managers don’t seem to be staying in touch a lot, and when they do it seems that far fewer than is ideal are concerned about wellbeing factors beyond performance.
If you bear in mind that most people have likely never been through a more stressful time, with fear for our health (or that of our loved ones), jobs, and financial security, if we want people to continue to perform at work, we really can’t afford to neglect what they need to remain engaged. If you want to remain an Engaging Manager through Covid, and come out of the other end with a stronger team, here are five suggestions:
1/ Don’t do what you were never supposed to do anyway
Even in the most stable of times, leadership that engages employees is unfortunately somewhat lacking in most organisations. Classic mistakes managers regularly make include micro-managing, not keeping people informed of the big picture or when priorities change, and/or being cynical towards new suggestions and ideas. When we are under huge pressure ourselves (such as in the midst of a global pandemic, for example), guess what happens? Even those of us who should know better default to doing more of this bad stuff.
Particularly when our people are under pressure, it is essential that we remember to help them re-engage and have a sense of meaning in what they do – it’s a basic human need. This is particularly worth considering given how many organisations have fully changed their vision and mission during the pandemic, and/or people’s roles. We must also offer employees as much autonomy as we can so that they can feel in control of what they do. As a result, we can expect that they will feel less threatened by the situation. At the same time as increasing autonomy, it is essential that we provide clear expectations of what we need from them, and what the non-negotiables are, so that we aren’t setting them up to fail. As their line manager we must also coach and support them alongside expanding their responsibility and stretching their capacity. All of this is what we need to do to get the best out of people even in normal times, but we need to be extra vigilant about it right now.
2/ Be visible, communicate well and provide support
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the British Psychological Society (BPS) came up with a range of advice for leaders and organisations about how to maintain employee wellbeing and ability to work well through the pandemic. The first and most important recommendation was to be visible and available. Unlike the managers described in the Hays research at the beginning of this article, to remain engaging, you need to keep in touch regularly, and help guide your employees to the resources they need. You do not have to have all of the solutions all of the time, nor should you pretend that you do, as misleading people isn’t the most engaging activity. Rather, you need to learn to be able to say when you don’t know what is around the corner. Can you engage them in thinking through what might be the best course of action when an issue arises? Being there and valuing their contributions will help increase their confidence in the face of uncertainty, and help reduce their stress.
The BPS strongly advises that your communication should be regular, frequent, simple and clear. There is no problem with repeating messages, indeed it is a good idea. Think how little we take in when we are being told something under circumstances of great stress. Actively encourage your team members to share their concerns and fears, and listen with patience and compassion.
The BPS also recommends that you encourage human connection and peer support for your team members wherever you can. If your team is partly or wholly virtual, is there a way team members can still have informal conversations with each other? Can you help make that happen? Whether working in the office or remotely, can you make time for your team to share their experiences with each other, as well as celebrate success (no matter how small)?
3/ Remember that it’s ok not to be ok
This is both in terms of your own self-care and the care of your people.
The BPS recommends that you remind people that the situation is unprecedented, and that stress, anxiety, and feeling disconnected does not mean you are useless, it means you are human. As a manager, can you give your team members the space and time to take breaks? You may find it useful to remind them that they are experiencing what most other people are too – they aren’t alone in this.
The global consultants McKinsey have written about the need for managers (CEOs specifically, but this applies to all managers) to look after themselves too. They describe the pressure on managers to manage dichotomies such as needing to appear both calm and full of optimism at the same time, and to have a clear plan of how to move forward through the current situation while at the same time not having all the answers. If this is you, can you get advice from a coach or respected colleague to support you through for this period at least? Do you have a mentor you can turn to? Can you please take a few days off and stop trying to be superhuman?! A CEO they interviewed gives us all some great advice, “Don’t ignore your body. You are invincible until you’re not”.
In other words, both demonstrating empathy and being open to it is essential for you to remain an Engaging Manager.
4/ Be mindful that everything and nearly everyone has changed, forever
As organisations and the world in general moves out of complete lockdown and into stage two of adapting to a new way of being, including varying degrees of remote working, so much has changed physically and psychologically for people. This needs to be acknowledged if they are to remain engaged.
For example, the fact that your attention as a manager may have had to be fully focused on operational issues during the most acute periods of the pandemic so far, and if your team members suddenly started working remotely, many of your people will have experienced greater autonomy, opportunities for job crafting and other benefits over the last few months. It is worth reflecting on how you can find out more about these. If you do, both they and the organisation could benefit from greater productivity and engagement as a result. Discussing with them how they can adapt from where they are now (not where they were) into what the organisation needs in future is a great way to maintain and even enhance their commitment and motivation. Ignoring the situation and expecting people to revert back to how things were before, or only focusing on what the organisation needs, is a recipe for disengagement.
For others, the situation will have been hugely disruptive and psychologically damaging – it is essential that you and your organisation play a part in supporting these people. Showing genuine concern for them and easing them back into whatever is next, with more support in place, will be key.
5/ Embrace what you have learned about the best of humanity
Finally, amongst the utter misery and desperation the pandemic has caused to millions of people in the UK and around the world, we must remember the chinks of light that have shone through. For me, one of the best things I have learned from the pandemic is that community spirit and leaders are absolutely everywhere – just waiting for the opportunity to step up.
How can what we’ve seen and what we’ve learned of others have a positive influence on how “leadership” is viewed in your team or organisation? What needs to change forever to embrace the best of what we have learned about each other – both structurally (the types of people we recruit & promote, what we value in performance appraisals, etc) and culturally (how we treat each other) so that this new level of engagement with each other can continue?
Juliette Alban-Metcalfe is Co-Chair of the EfS Thought and Action Steering Group. She is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and CEO of Real World Group.