Leading in Times of Change: Do You Have the Right Stuff?
Consider these real scenes in managing during the COVID period:
“I have a 70 year old employee who has worked here for 30 years. She’s capable and hard-working. She’s refusing to wear a mask, citing “religious reasons”. What do I do?”
“My medical equipment business orders tripled due to Covid. We have employees who qualify by age to shelter at home and refuse to come to work when we need them the most. I can’t hire new people as it takes too long to train them to meet the demand. The stress is intense.”
“My entire exec team is struggling with managing operations remotely. I am discovering the people I hired don’t know how to adapt. I should have screened for people strong in elastic thinking, creative problem-solving and calm.”
“How do we onboard new hires effectively when everyone is working virtually? We are hiring during the pandemic and we want people to feel well-accepted and connected. It’s hard when all they see are faces in zoom squares on a screen.”
Like it or not, we are facing challenges we have not imagined we would. It is a different day. A different day calls for different competencies. Many executive teams are holding reflective conversations about what skills they need to develop and to source when recruiting new talent.
If your team has not explored this, now is a smart time to consider how to strengthen your leadership for the future.
Three key capabilities to strengthen the executive muscle in turbulent times are: 1) reasoning/problem-solving, 2) listening, 3) compassion. It’s a triple play: Head, Ears, and Heart.
Leaders of others need to be rational, practical, and creative about how to pivot operations and find ways to sustain their organization in the face of changes. When others are too stressed to keep a level head, leaders use calm and emotional intelligence to guide teams through the moment. They use maze-brightness to envision future paths and ways to get there. They apply elastic thinking to invent workarounds to the boulders before them.
Is your team trained in flexible thinking? Is your team composed of highly diverse problem-solving styles of thinking?
Perhaps this is the trickiest discipline to master. There is a big difference between hearing and listening. Most of us hear more than actively listen. We hear when people speak while our thoughts are far away, we are multi-tasking or superficially nodding to what we hear but not actually process. The word for that moment when you stop paying attention is “pizzled” – a combination of puzzled and pissed – the dual reaction of the person who is only being heard. Being “heard’ translates emotionally to insult. People are attuned: they know when they are heard instead of listened to.
When we put down our cell phones and end our daydreams and actively listen, we engage.
Most management training focuses on presentation skills and not actively listening. Yet, talking before listening deepens the malady psychologist Paul Tournier notes: “Listen to all the conversations of our world between nations as well as between individuals. They are – for the most part – dialogs of the deaf.”
If you want to master active listening, practice these challenges:
- Ask people for their opinions that you know you don’t want to hear. ”Leaders who don’t listen will eventually surround themselves with people who have nothing to say” notes Andy Stanley. Leaders create psychological safety that encourages vitally needed diversity of thought. Leaders of change are self-secure and welcome opinions and ideas that challenge common and even much-revered beliefs.
- Ask until you understand before declaring a solution. Too many times, people do not listen to understand. They listen with the intent to respond. Leaders stop saying “I understand” and start saying “Help me understand.” Take the time to fully understand a problem before declaring a solution.
- Practice and improve your objectivity and accuracy in processing what you are told. Ask a person to tell you a story or problem that involves complex details. Then, try to repeat back to the person what you learned, understood, and recall. Test yourself for three common deficiencies: 1) omitting details, 2) replacing details with substitutes to fill in what you cannot recall, and 3) changing the story based on personal filtering, unconscious bias, and inferential judgment. When listening, aim to ask three times as many questions as you make declarations. Mastering inquiry is key to active listening.
- Seek and speak only the truth. Encourage people to tell you the truth, even if it’s not easy to hear. While the truth sometimes hurts, it is much easier than the price you pay when the truth finds you.
When leaders listen, people feel respected and understood. In turn, they respect and support their leaders. Leaders seldom get to choose their crisis and major change challenges. They do, however, get to choose what to do in a crisis. Make it a priority to listen – deliberately, openly, and carefully.
Leaders understand and exercise compassion, which is the ability to “take others in.” Compassion is more than sympathy. Sympathy lets you recognize another person’s feelings without having it yourself. Compassion – which comes from the root term “to suffer with” allows one to understand, feel, and help a person. This deeper competency includes understanding the context, the person’s abilities to address to the situation and think together with a person to find ways to move through it or solve it. It takes time to ask and understand the situations and support – emotional and resources – our people and teams need to address their challenges.
Clearly, the range of challenges of your work colleagues is wide. Some lost loved ones while others got ill. Some manage stressful home life situations. Some are working more while others are lost their jobs. Some feel bored and frustrated while others are lonely or feeling cooped up. The breadth of impact on the people we thought we knew is extensive. We cannot assume who we knew is who they are now.
Leaders inquire, care and explore ideas to help their people. We are sympathetic when we understand and do nothing. We are compassionate when we understand and make a difference.
When leaders bring the best of these competencies to the challenge, people align with fortitude. Then, your organization can transform and become more than resilient. It can come back even stronger than before.
Certainly, we all can deepen the skills that make us better leaders. Committing to this encourages others to do the same. We work with teams to build these competencies and strengthen team excellence. If you feel your teams will benefit from working together on such skills, we are happy to help.
Donna Hamlin co-leads the Strategic Services Practice Group, working with clients in all industries to facilitate their strategic planning and business performance improvement. With more than 35 years of experience in strategy, change management and human performance improvement, she works with clients ranging from Fortune 500 global enterprises to start-up companies spanning more than 40 countries.