Shifts to Leadership Development Due to the Pandemic

A company is a community. It is, ultimately, a set of people, with different roles, gathered to achieve one common goal.

If one point has been made clear due to the current pandemic and the shift to remote work (for those who could work remotely), it is how critical the human dimension of our business communities is and, therefore, how critical the role of leader is for the health and wellbeing of a team or an organization.

Whether a first line manager, a middle manager or an executive, leaders had to exercise over the past months what most of them had not been thoroughly trained for, the other side of leadership, not the technical side of it, but its human component: being compassionate, understanding , actively listening, acting as a coach or addressing tensions or conflicts without being behind the shoulders of employees, all in a world upside down where the life of everyone erupted emotionally and physically (via teleconference) in front of us all, with its fragility, but resilience also.

Let’s highlight below some of those dimensions.

First coming to mind are the daily struggles of minorities, dramatically unveiled as the death of George Floyd, pushed some of their representatives to be more open about those struggles. Suddenly, the complexity of life became more apparent to business leaders. The injustice that some employees experienced, the fear of being stopped by the police or seeing a relative stopped by the police and subject to violence, the feeling of being singled out because of sexual orientation, the arduous process followed by transgenders to find peace with themselves and others, all of those situations resurfaced as being key components of the life of some, unveiling to their managers what was kept unspoken or simply unknown as being precautionarily hidden.

Managers faced also the fact that employees, for most of them, are also parents or caregivers.
Being a new mother, or a new dad amidst the pandemic was a hardship (but certainly a joy as well), but being a parent, with or without new addition to the family, has been truly exhausting. Parents had to be teachers, entertainers, while figuring out how to organize life at home and how to work. Those having to take care of older parents or family members had sometimes the delicate and time-consuming duty of caring for them, buying them food and breaking the isolation under which those parents had to live due to the pandemic.

Sometimes, health issues got unaddressed, as doctors and hospitals pushed back on some interventions, leaving employees with doubts on when those conditions could be addressed and what it may mean for their health in the future.

Finally, the level of stress due to a combination of some of those factors, or other factors, led to an unprecedented rise of emotional needs. The level of anxiety among employees has never been so high, emotions coming like waves as the resolution of some issues unveiled others.

Suddenly, as was said before, the complexity of life and its effect on work became one of the baggage that leaders had to take into account, had to acknowledge and, sometimes, address.

Direct managers felt overwhelmed, as they faced their own set of issues and those of their employees. Middle managers had to take care of themself, of some employees reporting to them, and of their direct managers with their employees. Executives, who may have been trained to avoid considering those personal dimensions while leading organizations had to react instantly to them and shift to show and share their own fragility in order to stay genuine and honest to others.

Overnight, the work of a leader shifted, and the so-called soft dimensions of the job dramatically increased. The world pivoted in a matter of days. Leaders had to make choices, changes, adapt in the blink of an eye, breaking traditional bureaucratic decision-making processes to be immediately meaningful, using agility and pragmatism to secure people safety and their well-being.

HR had to pivot as well to answer questions on leadership such as:

  • What kind of leadership training, support and coaching to provide to instantly deliver what will allow leaders to be more effective?
  • How to create a safe place for managers to exchange and learn from each other?
  • How to emulate with them the kind of relationship that they should in turn develop with their employees?

In the world of interpersonal skills, you just do not dictate what should be done, you demonstrate it, you accompany people in their personal journey. If you want managers to trust employees, you have to trust them. If you want them to be active listeners, you have to be an active listener, if you want them to deal with uncertainty and be resilient, you have to deal with uncertainty and develop your resiliency.

HR was brought at the center of this behavioral revolution, being asked to anticipate, lead, be there for others while pivoting like everyone else. Yes, HR is a technical function. What HR does in many ways requires a technical expertise. But this is not what people expected and expect now on from HR: it is the ability to be a voice of reason, a guide, a coach, a driver of change to keep employees and managers safe, engaged and productive.

There are many leadership frameworks available. Each of them has its own strengths. You can’t argue about the need for Situational, Resonant, Servant, or Conscious Leadership for example, or about the benefits of Emotional Intelligence or positive psychology. All of those models give clues on how to be a leader, but you need to assemble your own framework with what resonates more with your company, with its leaders and with your own HR experience.

What to pick, then, to drive quickly the behavioral changes expected from leaders and develop the aptitude needed to face the new dimensions of their role?

Here are four proposed components for a simple but powerful leadership development framework adapted to our current turbulent time:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Psychological Safety
  • Value based behavioral changes
  • The cycle of being under or above the line

Let me develop each one quickly here:

Self- Awareness
Self-Awareness is the process of observing ourselves and identifying and managing our emotional reactions. It is being in tune with what we are feeling, being able to put a label to it and controlling our own reactions. More easily said than done. In a meeting, during a 1:1, as you negotiate with a boss, a colleague, your partner or your child, how do you feel? Are you happy? sad? afraid? ashamed? angry?

Do you let your emotions control you or are you able to be your own observer? Are you able to distance yourself in order to drive your reactions?

In order to cultivate social awareness, i.e. the ability to perceive what others are feeling and take clues from it to organize or direct work, a leader needs first to have sufficient self-awareness. This is the proverbial “take care yourself first in order to be of support to others”. This has become a prime leadership ability and will continue to be, but how to you train leaders to be more self-aware?

You use multiple avenues for that. Here are some suggestions to do so:

  • You need first to let leaders understand that self-awareness is a prerequisite to social awareness which is crucial to acting in a way that resonates with others
  • You can then introduce a mental representation of oneself as being a body (physical wellbeing), a heart (emotional wellbeing), a mind (cognitive wellbeing), and a spirit (spiritual wellbeing) to analyze how emotions are felt, where they come from, how they “show up”
  • You can ask leaders to do simple mindfulness meditations, taking the lead and doing it yourself with them
  • You can pair leaders whom you know are self-aware with leaders who need support (peer coaching)
  • You set up regular meetings with all leaders and ask simple questions to foster a dialog where self and social awareness could be discussed
  • You model self-awareness and use social awareness in your relationship with others

Psychological Safety
This concept has been famously developed by Amy Edmonson (best described by her in “The fearless organization” – Wiley – 2019). Psychological safety is the equivalent of trust between two individuals, but for a community. If there is no psychological safety within a team or within an organization, employees will look for themselves and will not act to support each other, will not share their deepest thoughts or will play them against the others in order to advance their cause.

In a safe organization, employees feel empowered, feel listen to, feel like they have an active voice.

But, again, how do you train leaders to build and sustain safe organizations?
Here are some avenues you can use:

  • Leverage a quick intro to the concept of Psychological Safety (TED talk from Amy Edmonson, YouTube videos) to identify its benefits and the components of a safe organization
  • Take risk: Suggest leaders to run an open survey with simple questions and ask them to take action on a small number of issues highlighted by the survey
  • Create a forum for leaders and model psychological safety within that forum (a forum where it is safe to ask questions and provide feedback – see the same suggestion for self-awareness)
  • Ensure that psychological safety is embodied at the top of the organization to enable a cascading effect
  • Link psychological safety to your D&I program

Value Based Behavioral Changes
Your organization has values. Each organization has values. If you do not have explicit values, they are implicit, but you have values. This being said, the exercise below is only possible if you have explicit values, ones that are recognized by all within your company.

Take each one of those values and ask yourself:
In this pandemic, what should we do to live up to those values?

Let’s take the example of the company I work for right now. Denali Therapeutics. The values at Denali are simple but powerful: “Unity”, “Trust”, “Grit” and “Growth”.

For Denali, this meant asking ourselves:

What means Growth right now? At the beginning of the pandemics we thought that we had to cover the immediate needs of employees and leaders and emphasize safety, but we realized quickly that without growth employees may not face the challenges that they had to address. The pace of change was so quick that we had to collectively learn, communicate better, increase the capabilities of individuals to regain control of the different components of their life and work. We defined actions to address those points.

What means “Grit” right now? Over the past months, employees expressed Grit, but at the expense of their health, their sanity sometimes. We asked managers to pay attention to signs of burn out, we openly talked about “not being at 100% capacity” being an OK state, gave time off and incented employees to take vacations even if just by staying at home. Resilience needs open spaces, and this is what we redefined in a remote environment.

What means “Trust” right now? That one, coupled with Grit, leads to a simple stance: trust that employees will do their best in current circumstances; And, for leaders not comfortable with exercising their role remotely, overcome your fear; Trust that we belong to a community of adults chartered by a shared mission and that each one will perform to the best of his/her capabilities. Employee’s commitment to their work was unbelievable, as it has been for every company offering such trust to their employees.

What means “Unity” right now? This one got a unique resonance with the recent movement against police violence. We realized collectively the hardship that some of us went through to establish their identity, in order to get where they are now. We realized the uniqueness of each employee, the need to better acknowledge and value this uniqueness, the need to be more diverse in some dimensions, to listen better to each other, to set goals, to take actions on this matter. Nothing strikingly innovative here, but a reinforcement of our value of Unity, the recognition of the progress we still need to accomplish, and the commitment to take actions.

What should you do? For each value of your company, ask yourself this simple question “In this pandemic, what should we do to live up to this value?”, and you will have a blueprint of what leaders could do to reinforce the power that those values represent during this pandemic.

The Cycle of Being Under or Above the Line

The last point that I would like to emphasize here is a point highlighted best in the book “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership” by Jim Dethmer (The Conscious Leadership Group), but is everywhere in the leadership literature: Am I above or below the line of consciousness? Am I a victim of what is happening to me (under the line)? Or am I in charge of my responses to those external events (above the line)?

Being under the line is having a fixed mindset, being committed to being right, being a victim, a diminisher, a taker, a micro manager.

Being above the line is having a growth mindset, being committed to learn, to be a survivor, a multiplier, a giver, a partner.

You are either under or above the line at any given point in time. When you are above, you are in the flow, you are present, engaged, but something may happen and you drift, you get defensive, you close yourself to feedback. You should expect to drift at some point, you cannot always be above the line, but it is up to you to shift back above the line and use what is happening to you as a learning experience.

For leaders, acknowledging that they can move from one state to the other is crucial. It is certainly enabled by self-awareness, but this distinction between being below or above the line is dynamic, implies a cycle: If I “drift”, I should consciously “shift back”, adapt my mindset and be open again to learning and being responsive.

The more changes you experience, the more you should expect to drift, and, therefore, having to shift back. As you get familiar with this “drift and shift” cycle, you may be able to flag it on others, see when they drift and help them shift back. That is what is expected from leaders.

But, as for the other directions of leadership development, how to do work with leaders to get them to recognize “drift” moments, and help them “shift back”?
Here are some ideas you can use:

  • Introduce the concept during a leaders’ forum
  • Identify recent changes or events affecting the company and ask how they reacted to it. In a non-judgmental way, ask if those reactions were characteristics of a “below” or “above” the line behavior.
  • Share with them simple ways to “shift” back such as changing posture, reappraisal or meditation.

As your leadership development evolves, based on those proposed directions, or based on other dimensions you feel more critical for your company, you may decide to invest differently into your current HR technology: Take another look at your Talent Management solution, into the tool used for surveys, 360 or to collect feedback, into your coaching solution or other technologies that will allow each leader to be more effective. Obviously, you won’t be able to deploy or redeploy such solutions in a matter of days, but this could be an investment for the near future.

Being a leader is a journey. Setting leaders successfully on that journey is placing HR at the center of the current storm. To be successful at it, HR needs to set itself on a similar journey and practice being strong leaders. It is only by doing so that it will rise and be acknowledged as showing the path forward.

Bruno Querenet Onfroy de Breville
+ posts

Bruno Querenet is a senior director, People Solutions at Splunk. He has deployed numerous HR solutions enabling companies and their HR teams to leverage the benefits of HR technology. Prior to joining HR, he gained business experience through roles in manufacturing, R&D, marketing, and IT. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related Articles

Join the world’s largest community of HR information management professionals.

Scroll to Top