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We are heading for a ninth month of COVID-19 measures in Ireland. What are some of the risk factors facing leaders in organisations in Ireland?
With each additional month that passes in this pandemic state there is a knock-on effect on every one of us. Most organisations have taken great care of their employees since March. However there are increasing signs that leaders are now beginning to feel significant strain. Here are five risk factors that I have picked up from working with leaders in recent engagements.
Energy and motivation loss
It’s not just employees that face a dip in their motivation and energy, especially as we seem to be travelling a rollercoaster of restriction severity in recent weeks. Leaders often put everyone else’s welfare first, but that only works if you remember to loop back around and take care of your own welfare too. Leaders will experience occasional slumps and it’s vital to acknowledge that these slumps are important signals from the body to rest and replenish energy. I recommend extending kindness and care to every member of your team, including yourself. Notice when you experience fatigue or low motivation and recognise that this is a signal to rest and recover. Burnout ensues when you keep pushing yourself and you ignore these signals from the body.
Over-stretching their contribution
We know from various sources that employees are already working longer hours at home than they did in the office before COVID-19. We also hear that an increasing workload since the late summer is blurring the boundary between work time and personal time for many leaders. Not only is this unsustainable but you are setting a poor example to your team members if you expect them to be able to switch off in the evening. Many leaders are now lamenting the lack of their former hour-long commute home, observing that it created a clear boundary between “at work” and “not at work”. The hour-long commute provided a chance to decompress so that when they got home, they were free of work thoughts until the next day. With the lack of a clear boundary between work and home when we’re constantly in the home, this missing time to decompress and switch off is causing some to keep working and keep thinking about work well into the night. The best advice seems to be to encourage leaders to have one place in the home where work happens, but ideally not the kitchen table or sofa. When the work part of the day ends it’s best to leave that place and close the door, sending a signal to the body and brain that work is done for the day. Working at the kitchen table or sofa trains the mind that every place is a workplace, and every time is potentially time for work.
Dark nights and reduced exercise
Sitting in front of the computer between March and September, most leaders recognised how important it was to maintain some form of physical activity away from the computer. Some people took up walking or exercising early in the day, others exercised over the lunch hour, while others again took advantage of the evening light to exercise as they wished. As the nights have darkened and evening temperatures have dropped, it has made exercising outside less appealing and less safe. Working all day with no form of exercise, no matter how short or simple, is not good for the body or mind. We derive huge benefits from exercise for the body and brain, so suddenly denying the body and brain these benefits doesn’t make much sense. You may not be able to exercise like you did earlier in the year but there is surely some form of activity you could do. Look out for opportunities to get away from the computer and outdoors whenever you can, even for 15 minutes. Fresh clean air and some exercise for yearning muscles will do wonders for your focus and productivityand your general wellbeing. Of course, you need to pay attention to the COVID-19 rules as they apply to exercise and distance, but don’t let that be the excuse that causes you to stop all forms of exercise.
Leaders made significant efforts to keep in touch with their teams since March. Many team members have reported dramatic improvements in their relationship with their direct manager, and engagement has held up remarkably well and even improved in some cases. We hear how this narrowed focus by leaders on their own teams has caused their connections with other leaders to weaken. Witness how leaders behave excitedly on Zoom calls when they finally reconnect with managerial colleagues that they have not had contact with for months. The focus on their own team is of critical importance to leaders, but leaders need to maintain their networks too. Don’t wait for the CEO or some other executive to set up a leader’s meetup. Go ahead and reach out to people with whom you have not had contact for some time. Nourish your networks before they wither away.
Head down leadership
The final risk factor I see is what I call 'head down leadership'. The lurching from full lockdown to Level 2 to Level 3 to Level 5 has thrown many of us into a survival mode. We struggle to see very far ahead and focus instead on just maintaining performance and momentum. We don’t know what’s going to happen and don’t see any point in speculating about it. That makes good sense for a time but remember that followers look to leaders for hope. Followers expect leaders need to paint a picture of a better day, and to set out a plan to get there. When did you last look up, and talk about what six months from now might look like, with your team?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you engage in some crystal-ball gazing. However, I am suggesting a conversation about the future, to even acknowledge that it won’t be like this forever, and that there is a point to us continuing our work as a team because it’s part of the journey to that better day. Ignoring the future and spending all your time in the head down “let’s not talk about it” mode is a potential source of worry for your team who surely wonder what you think about all this. Leaders are dealers in hope, so I’m asking when did you last have a conversation that gave a sense of hope to your team? I wrote previously about “bounded optimism” and how important it is to be grounded and realistic with your team. This is still true, but it doesn’t take away from the need to acknowledge that there will be a future. A discussion about it might reveal whether this future is something you and your team will play a part in shaping, or if instead the future is something that will just happen to you and your team.
Leaders are not immune from the very things we try to help our employees avoid. Don’t ignore your own needs. Watch out for these risk factors that are very much alive in the business world right now.
What is the best way for OD professionals to plan when it’s so difficult to anticipate the future right now?
Planning and implementing change programmes is one of the pillars of organisational development. Planning such programmes is a significant challenge right now.
Most organisations operate a one-year planning cycle. Performance management and professional development are typically aligned with it. Some also have more strategic planning horizons of up to five years. No one can tell you with certainty that they know what their business will look like in five years.
The new reality is shorter performance windows. In a time of crisis, a 12-month performance window is too long. The finish line is too distant. It’s diffifult to gauge if things are getting better or are coming back under control. We have shifted to shorter performance windows because they work. We identify what to achieve in the next 30, 60, or 90 days. We expect that external factors are likely to change, and that we’ll have to adapt our focus accordingly.
We’re now firmly in the era of flexible performance. We still need annual planning and longer-range strategic planning. We just need to be humbler about our ability to predict the future. We need to be more willing to adapt our plans when we can see that we were wrong. This means viewing the goals we begin with as not set in stone. Flexible performance welcomes the opportunity to course correct often. Ultimately, we want people doing the right work at any given moment.
It’s not just goals that need to be flexible. Targets also benefit from more flexibility. The targets we begin a year with may no longer be entirely possible when circumstances change. Flexing targets to acknowledge that reality makes more sense.
Employee development, especially short-term learning needs, also benefits from a flexible approach. Long-term development planning still makes sense for future roles. It doesn’t help people in the team who need to know how to use Microsoft Teams right now. Identifying short-term learning needs and addressing them right now makes sense. These needs will change over the course of a year too.
Planning is vital, but inflexible planning is harmful. Sticking rigidly to the plan when all around is in flux creates panic in a team. Applying a flexible mindset to each of your plans makes sense. Pay attention to your assumptions. Keep your eyes and ears open so that you are not blindsided by changing circumstances. Engage your team and use their insights to inform your plans. Let them know why plans are changing and exactly what you need from them. Be humble. Be flexible. Be inclusive. Stay positive.
Justin Kinnear is a highly experienced facilitator as well as an accredited Master Trainer, Leadership Coach, Author and conference presenter. Prior to moving into L&D, Justin spent his early career as an engineer with IBM prior to taking responsibility for all Technical Training and then the L&D function. Prior to joining hpc, Justin spent a number of years leading the learning functions in IBM and in Britvic Ireland. He also worked for a time as Head of Customised Education with the IMI. In IBM, he was responsible for all training in the International Contact Centre, the largest IBM site of its kind in the world. He was also twice drafted into IBM’s Global Performance Team to increase the effectiveness of IBM’s talent development approach across a global population of 4,000 employees.
Justin has a BSc in Engineering from Trinity College Dublin and an MBA from Henley Management College. He is accredited as a Coach with the International Coach Federation, and is certified to deliver the Insights Discovery Profile and the Bar-On EQi Emotional Intelligence inventory.
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