Leading People Through a Pandemic Predicament

Leader Covid

By building trust, maintaining engagement, and ensuring accountability, leaders can mitigate the risks inherent with scattered and distanced work teams during a crisis.

Public leadership—and specifically public education—is a contact sport. The traditional notion of government centers on constituent service, high touch, intentional engagement and fostering community. The psychiatrist Edward Hallowell refers to these “human moments” as interactions essential to the health of any workplace: moments where colleagues occupy the same physical space and share each other’s intellectual and emotional attention.[1]

So much for that.

Cynicism aside, public schools are by definition (that’s the “public” part) on-site and engaging work environments. For many Texas districts and charter schools, students and educators have returned to campus to varying degrees and in a deliberate fashion that best serves their communities. But not all support staff have returned, particularly in areas like finance and IT where remote work is more amenable to the task at hand. Even for those professionals who are on campus or at the administration building, social distancing norms have put a damper on personal contact. What’s a leader do when that personal contact is taken away?

For business and technology leaders, lack of supervision and contact can mean an increase in risk. To mitigate those risks, and to stay engaged with your teams, here are some general concepts to keep in mind.

Trust: People responsible for the financial health and fiduciary integrity of an organization are hired for a reason. Whether you run a finance, procurement, HR or technology team, your colleagues have proven, either through experience, past performance or adhering to the ethical standards of their professions, that they can be trusted. That level of trust does not change during a business disruption. It intensifies. Even when a leader cannot observe work first-hand, you must trust that responsibilities are being upheld. You have no choice but to let go of some control. If you cannot cede responsibility to your team with an adequate level of trust, then your personnel problems have nothing to do with the pandemic and you have deeper issues to address.

Engagement: One of the myths of the “Hero Leader” is the possession of some instinctive superpower to understand the needs, strengths, and weaknesses of people. The best leaders have this, but it isn’t a superpower; understanding comes from work: repetition, observations, and communication. If you want to know how your team is performing, ask them.

One of the exercises I have used throughout my career is this four-question matrix: Do I know what my job is? Do I know how I am performing? Do I like my job? Do I like the people I work with? Any time an employee answers “no” to any of those questions, it is cause for concern.

The pandemic does not keep you from asking employees how they feel about their situation. You may not have a chance to share a cup of coffee or have a quick catch-up in the hall, but you can still engage. That engagement needs to be more intentional when you are denied ad hoc social interactions. Set up a Zoom for the team, encourage experienced employees to check in on their less experienced peers, call, text, e-mail, write more thank you notes. Take advantage of every opportunity to make someone’s day. Engagement will not come naturally the way it did when everyone was together. It may feel impersonal, but leaders need to build systems to facilitate the emotional health of their teams, not just to accomplish critical tasks.

Accountability: Personal engagement and ensuring the well-being and health of your employees becomes more critical during disruptive and anxious times, but nurture cannot take the place of accountability. Both aspects of leadership co-exist. As a leader I can take care of my people and hold them accountable for their performance. Accountability depends upon an established baseline of trust, the first point above. However, it also depends upon pride of performance. An initial crisis often results in a burst of esprit de corps, an all-for-one and one-for-all attitude that carries an organization through a precipitating event.

That initial burst has long dissipated at this point in the pandemic, but the work hasn’t ceased. Your best opportunity to build momentum and maintain an accountable culture is to tie work to mission. In other words, what does every member of your team do to ensure every student in your care gets a great education? Make sure your team is reminded of what they are supporting. Hold them to a standard of performance worthy of that charge.

Even the best leaders struggle. Managing through a pandemic challenges organizations at every departmental level and across every industry. When times are tough, remember the fundamentals: trust, engagement, accountability. Take care of yourself and your people. There are brighter days ahead.

[1] Hallowell M.D., Edward, The Human Moment at Work, Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb 1999

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