The crisis leadership imperative pt2

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Written by Steve Macaulay and David Buchanan on 12 March 2021 in Features
Features

In this final part of David Buchanan and Steve Macaulay’s look at leadership in troubled times, they emphasise the power of the personal and L&D’s role in supporting the senior team.

The TEST framework introduced in part one of this article emphasised the importance of trust, empathy, sharing and transparency in leadership at all times – but 2uxparticularly in times of crisis.

One of the ‘traps’ that leaders often fall into, as outlined in part 1 of this article, is losing sight of the importance of face to face – this distancing can lead to misunderstanding.

For example, do you think that employees’ moaning is a problem? It’s not. It’s a symptom. Until you understand the underlying problem(s) generating those feelings, any action that you take will be arbitrary, and probably a waste of time. There are at least two reasons for maintaining close ties with employees in a crisis.

First, crises generate uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Emotional responses reduce performance. Leaders who are aware of employees’ feelings are better placed to deal with those concerns by providing the reassurance and certainty that people look for in a crisis.

Effective leadership means keeping in touch with employees’ emotions – as well as your own. Standing back and ignoring employees’ feelings can make a crisis worse.

Second, your people may be able to contribute good practical problem-solving ideas.  But you won’t find out about these if you don’t talk to them. Frontline employees in particular, who are closer to the action than senior management, may have access to real time information that allows them to solve problems as they arise – if they are given the decision rights.

Effective leadership means keeping in touch with employees’ emotions – as well as your own. Standing back and ignoring employees’ feelings can make a crisis worse

It’s not personal

Virtual meetings have been made necessary by the current pandemic. They work fine over short periods, and when the exchange of information is straightforward.  But compared with personal contact, you can’t develop the same mutual understanding with people that you only meet on a screen.

The technology gets in the way. Meetings are more formal; people take turns to talk; there is less humour; there is no spontaneity. In other words, there is no sustained, meaningful communication. Even in a crisis, leaders should use a mix of communication channels, including face to face.

Social media has limits

Social media has radically changed how and what we communicate. The web of online interconnections in which we now live has been called the social matrix. But it’s an illusion to think that all of our communications are now virtual.

Just think of all the corporate and domestic situations – from selection interviews to celebrations – where personal contact is valuable, if not essential. Some employers complain that young recruits don’t have communication skills – how to present information, how to respond in an interview, how to listen actively. 

This is because, in their online lives, they have never had to learn the art. You only ever really communicate with others through face-to-face contact. Social media are useful, but they have limitations.

L&D priorities

L&D can play a facilitative role, supporting leaders through challenging periods, encouraging employee involvement in developing a future vision, and establishing momentum for implementing strategic plans. They can help build a culture which seeks to assist leaders to understand their own and their employees’ reactions to new ideas, and be able to listen to and coach their teams.

The TEST framework can be a tool for diagnosing 'Where are we now?', and for developing ways to continue to strengthen leadership practice – to be more visible, communicate regularly, and be prepared to show that leaders are listening and modelling the organisation’s values.

Communication with a purpose

It’s commonplace for L&D to advise leaders to communicate more.  However, in today’s crisis, the response is likely to be: “I don’t have time for that”. But we can advise leaders to communicate with purpose, and an agenda. The purpose is to find out what impact the crisis is having on your organisation. The agenda is to find out how your people are feeling, what they are thinking, and what solutions they have.

It's less common to advise leaders to listen more. Yet the best managers do just that: asking questions, gathering intel, building relationships, cementing goodwill, spotting valuable initiatives – and developing their formal and informal networks. 

‘Communicate’ is an open-ended instruction. In today’s climate, leaders will benefit more from a targeted ‘ear to the ground’.

 

About the author

David Buchanan is emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at Cranfield University. He can be contacted at david.buchanan@cranfield.ac.uk. Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development. He can be contacted at: s.macaulay@cranfield.ac.uk

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