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Caring for Leadership During Tough Times

Rachel Stewart Johnson

Psychologist | Driven by communications about human behavior in Work

At a time when guidance from leaders has been vital, what insights can we provide for leaders?

During times of disruption, leaders across industries confront a heavy load. They’re asked to do many things at once: reassure the workforce, maintain calm, and make decisions about next steps. These needs exist during an isolated shakeup or, as we’ve seen in 2020, a generation-defining era of major upheaval. With demands steep and impacts widespread, one might ask: who can help the leaders? Here are some tips to enhance the performance and boost the morale of those in the leadership ranks.

1. Be human

With the boundaries separating work and home more diffuse than they have ever been, the distinction has blurred between our well-prepared “professional selves” and our off-the-cuff responses to everyday happenings. Smart leaders recognize that taking a “we’re all in this together” approach, with its accompanying candor, can help team members worry less and focus their energy on the company’s performance. Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight, recently allowed his three young children to banter and roughhouse with him during a company livestream. He explained to siliconANGLE that this approach allows him to extend the company’s “human first” credo to their internal dynamics. “If you’re willing to be vulnerable, which takes some bravery” he noted, “it can really pay off for your business, but also for you as a person.”

Mehta’s last comment -- pointing to the wellness benefit of a decision -- may be one that is prone to neglect. Leaders should allow themselves to put their own health and wellness into consideration. An example: leaders deserve the benefit of the doubt, too. They shouldn’t rankle at the idea of having a down day or needing time to “reboot.” And tolerating a photobomb here or there? That can free up mental space, while also providing some comic relief. During a time when headlines can be heavy, finding appropriate, reasonable sources of levity is a valuable step.

2. Fill the trust gap

Consultant Albertina Vaughn includes trust as one of five pillars of leadership that will be essential as we move toward the summer months and beyond. These days, it’s as if the world itself has betrayed our trust. Many have lost a sense of stability. The result is chronic uncertainty about next week, next month, and next quarter. Of course, leaders can’t control what’s going on outside their organizations. But by building a culture of trust within the organization, benefits are widespread -- including for leaders themselves.

How can this be achieved? Consider two routes:

  1. Seek feedback.
  2. Stick to a status-update schedule.

A simple step to cultivating trust is to ask for feedback from your employees and to make this an ongoing habit. What isn’t working? What’s being judged by 2019 parameters? What’s going so well that it should be maintained even as the most acute phase of the pandemic recedes? Trust will also come from transparency. Take the time to deliver a clear-eyed, frank, and thorough assessment of your organization’s status. Anticipate when changes will have to be made and include as much lead time as possible. Communicate the dates when employees can expect you to provide information, and stick to that schedule. Now more than ever, workers appreciate having at least some predictability to rely on.

3. Remember psychological safety

The concept of psychological safety in workplaces was identified in the late 2010s and found to be associated with both high productivity and high satisfaction. Teams that excel in this variable create an environment in which members feel comfortable sharing ideas or critiques. There is little fear of missteps -- whether that be proposing an ill-fated idea or making a simple mistake. Team members don’t battle for attention or seek to one-up each other. Instead, the environment is oriented toward growth, mutual benefit, and shared effort.

Identifying strengths of each individual

During the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders should step back and gauge the extent to which their organization promotes psychological safety. A starting point is to think of your team members not as a collective, but as individuals. And with that, take stock of what each individual brings to their role. A personality assessment is an easy entry point to guide this discussion.

The “Big Five” theory of personality indicates that each of us has our own level of five core dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability. Every employee is living through the changing realities of COVID-19 in their own way -- some sensing opportunities for innovation, some determined to control whatever they can, some seeking comfort from others. The use of personality insights as a bridge to psychological safety allows you to make adjustments on a person-by-person basis.

Consider what this might look like in a team. Project Manager Daniela is lower in Agreeableness. As a result, she thrives with a spirit of competition and thrives when she does not feel micromanaged. Software developer Veronica is also lower in Agreeableness. To enhance their ability to work together and promote psychological safety within their workplace team, Daniela and Veronica should be encouraged to monitor their own progress with fewer requirements to check in. They should make many of their own decisions. Neither should be put in a position of mentoring or training a third team member. And a system of incentives should be considered to gain value from their mutual appreciation of competition. Achieving a good match between a typical workday and one’s biggest personal assets can facilitate a feeling of being both valued and valuable to an organization. With that foundation, psychological safety may be far easier to achieve.

Caring for leadership now

Those who are in positions of power and decision-making are weathering a unique set of challenges this year. It’s a time of reckoning, when many pages of our old playbooks simply no longer apply. As we continue to move forward together, devoting resources to the development and wellness of everyone from entry-level staffers to the most seasoned ranks of leadership are as essential as they have ever been.


To learn more about empowering you and your leadership team according to your personalities, try Traitify.


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