Over the past two months my social media feed (like yours, I’m sure) has been full of comparisons between leaders handling and mishandling the pandemic. What I see now reinforces what I’ve observed for years: those who are doing it right consistently connect with the emotional, human side of this major work life transition in an authentic, constructive way. They win trust and contain anxiety by speaking openly about the risks and pain surrounding change, while simultaneously creating a way forward and a sense of hope for the future – even without knowing what it will look like. More importantly, they recognize their role is to create conditions for people to excel by enabling the development of competence in the “new normal.” I’ve found there are three top leadership practices that create these human-focused conditions: maintaining a mindset of positive belief, modeling trust-building behaviors, and reinforcing with aligned actions.
Maintaining a Mindset of Positive Belief
The best change leaders consistently share an attitude of positive belief: in themselves and their abilities; in their people and their competence; and in the benefits of the change. They uplift and help people move forward. It’s like the pilot who comes on the intercom during a turbulent flight to calmly let you know what’s happening, how they’re handling it, and when they expect things to get better.
A leader’s positive belief buoys confidence in those around them, especially in the midst of ambiguity, cynicism, and chaos, which are common during the midpoint of change efforts. Beyond feeling better, we know from research on positive psychology that positive belief can actually raise people’s game by expanding their capacity to think and become more resourceful during stressful situations. This has the added benefit of building their resilience and enhancing their performance.
Modeling Trust-Building Behaviors
Senior leadership’s ability to build and maintain trust with their people is crucial to successful transformations. Top trust-boosting behaviors are: transparency in communicating, including being explicit about shifting priorities, expectations, and learnings; showing genuine care by adapting to people’s unique needs; and having the courage to be vulnerable. Let’s look at two examples.
Chris was talking to me about the owners of his firm and noted, “On weekly Zoom meetings they call out how much they appreciate us for carrying the firm forward right now. After getting a loan they gave us each a small bonus to recognize our efforts. They let us know their goal is to break even, get through this together, and keep the doors open. And then, to top it off, they offered us half days every other Friday. I love these guys – it feels like they really care about us and our clients.”
Describing a recent layoff meeting at her firm, Elise commented, “I thought our CEO handled the meeting really well. She sat down with us and talked about the need for cutbacks due to the crisis. You could see and feel the emotion in her voice as she talked, pledging to hire people back as soon as possible. I could tell how much she cared about people. This was hard for her too.”
Like Chris’s manager, a common trust-building thread among leaders is an intentional focus on modeling behaviors that signal “we have your back.” Elise’s boss showed vulnerability – not as anxiety, but by allowing people to view her humanity while still focusing on others. Leaders who balance sharing their feelings and being present for others increase psychological safety on teams.
Reinforcing with Aligned Actions
Smart leaders understand that people will be watching for signs of how they will be supported and held accountable in the “new normal.” This includes modifying systemic processes like compensation and reward, keeping promises made, and adjusting performance metrics to synch with new expectations and conditions. Reinforcing actions involves being mindful of fulfilling promises on agreed upon change initiative expectations; for example, rewarding risk taking that fosters learning. That means giving hard and soft rewards (e.g. budget, authority, visibility, etc.) to team members walking the talk, as well as holding the line and coaching those who don’t.
Putting Practices into Action:
- As a leader ask yourself honestly, on a scale of 0-10, 10=100% successful, how confident are you about successfully moving your team through this transition? What is giving you confidence around the rating you chose? What would it take to move your “positive belief” needle up a notch?
- How are you modeling trust-building behaviors? Be specific in your answers.
- Does your current reward system align with the changes you want to see? If not, what can you do to modify accordingly?