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How human-centred is your crisis leadership? Three key questions to challenge yourself and examine your own practice

May 7, 2020
May 7, 2020

Human centred leadership is more important than ever during these challenging times – and tough to achieve.

When you’re under pressure to safeguard the very existence of your organisation, as many are during the current coronavirus crisis, there’s a temptation to crack the whip. Ramping up productivity might seem like the only way to protect profits and jobs. And faced with uncertainty, we all reach towards what we can control – which unfortunately for our teams, might be them.

I sense Robin Moriaty’s 'Busy-ness' piece is accurate – too many people I speak to are working significantly longer hours now than before the crisis.

It’s an understandable response. Bearing the burden of leadership during a crisis can be a very isolating experience. I do understand the desire to put task before team. But we must check ourselves to avoid causing harm to our people and ultimately, to our businesses, too.
The best leaders in crisis are finding ways to be more human – not less. Whatever the nature of the crisis, leaders who put people first will succeed in creating teams that can adapt and thrive.

How well are you doing at putting people first? Ask yourself these three questions. And then ask your team…

1. Are you making space for the mess of forced work-life integration?

The notion of ‘bringing your whole self to work’ is taking on a whole new meaning right now. We’re bringing our whole home (and family and pets) to work. If we take the time, there’s rich opportunity to get to know each other better and build trust.

It's critical to remember that this isn’t simply remote working: It’s working from home AND coping with crisis. We’re not all in the position to reduce our people’s working hours like the WWF has. Or to send care packages. Or to double the provision of paid days for staff volunteering programmes like Cisco has. But we are all able to simply acknowledge the chaos - and give our team permission to do whatever works for them.

2. Are you staying curious about how your people are doing?

I keep hearing stories about leaders who are feeling the pressure to such a degree, they’re not checking in with their people at the most basic level. And without being able to read body language and have quick chats in the margins of meetings as we would in ‘real life’, it’s easier than ever to miss the signs that someone’s struggling.

For the people in your team who live alone, contact with colleagues may be the only human interaction in a whole day. Whatever personal struggles people had before (housing, domestic abuse, or caring responsibilities) are amplified now.  Be curious about what your team are going through – and how the experience is affecting them from one day to the next.  

Everyone is more volatile during a crisis – don’t assume that someone who was OK yesterday is OK today.

It’s not your job to solve all these problems, but acknowledging the challenge will go a long way to supporting your team to feel calmer and do their best work.  Just knowing that you’re aware that life is tough right now will ease the pressure.

A good place to start is simply making time at the start of every meeting to talk about how you and the team are really doing. You can also create a feeling of working together by keeping a ‘Zoom room’ open for a few hours, so team members can jump in to say hello, ask each other quick questions, or just co-work in silence.

3. Are you showing your own vulnerability?

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni says the biggest challenge for a team is the absence of trust. When a leader hides a struggle, the team may lose trust in them, or worse, misread the signals and think the leader’s bad mood is about them. They may become paranoid about their performance, or reluctant to ask for help with their own challenges.

If you’re having a bad day or you’re worried about what’s happening, say so. By sharing your own vulnerability, you’ll create an environment where people feel safe to speak openly with each other.  

This includes being able to share honest feedback. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott advises leaders to ‘care personally and challenge directly’. When a team feels comfortable to gently challenge each other, it’s easier to get to the nub of a problem and work through possible solutions. You can model this by seeking feedback on your own performance.

I know this can be tricky. In fast-paced change, many decisions are left to individual leaders and your team may be looking to you for answers. It’s ok to say you don’t have those answers. But now is not the time to wait passively for policies from further up the chain. Take the initiative and do what feels right for your team.

It seems counterintuitive, but it may help to see this crisis as a chance to re-establish and strengthen the good habits already embedded in our teams. By showing up as real humans and being open and honest about what’s working and where the gaps are, leaders can help their teams remain calm, confident and connected.

To talk about how we can help you adapt your leadership approach in response to crisis or unchosen change, please contact me:

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