Jesse Sostrin is Salesforce’s Global Head of Executive Development, which means he spends a lot of time thinking about the future of leadership. He is the author of five books, including “The Manager’s Dilemma,” “Beyond the Job Description,” and “Re-Making Communication at Work,” all of which helped to establish his place in the next generation of influential thinkers challenging conventional ideas about management, leadership, and success on the job.
Here on the Salesforce Blog, Sostrin’s column offers periodic insights on the challenges of leading people, teams, and organizations into “the next normal.” In today’s edition, he explains how people managers can increase their visibility and transparency in order to engage employees at a new level and rebuild productivity after a crisis.
Every crisis has two phases. First comes the disruptive event and the actual damage it causes. Then there is the collective impact from the reaction to the event itself. While leaders cannot control the first phase, their mindset, behaviors, and public actions have significant influence on the second.
Consider a natural disaster. There is the event itself — an earthquake, hurricane, pandemic — and then the compounding human response that follows. A positive response can inspire hope, swiftly deliver humanitarian support, address infrastructure issues to relieve safety concerns, and collectively limit the damage from the first phase. However, ineffective responses, whether from a breakdown in communication, planning, or misalignment, fail to deliver those positive resources and risk making the first phase of the event worse than it needed to be.
Any positive response needs a strong and consistent focus on people, including their hopes, fears, motivations, and needs. Of course you need to solve problems quickly, but focusing too much on the technical issues from the triggering event itself can leave leaders disconnected from what their teams, clients, and stakeholders need most – a champion of their ultimate concerns.
As circumstances evolve and leaders refine their approach to the next phase of the crisis, here are three human-first leadership strategies to help your people grow through change — not just work around it.
Listening. Flickr/1Day Review
Be people-obsessed, not solution-crazy
Great leaders strive for a different outcome after a crisis – one that elevates people and leaves the entire situation potentially better than before. To achieve this, leaders have to resist a primal instinct to fix things.
This is easier said than done because, for leaders, the desire to act in adversity is overwhelming. Often, their resilience compels them to take ownership of what they can influence and work quickly to “make things better” no matter the circumstances. Think about international development teams that might install irrigation systems in developing communities to increase crop production, only to see an explosion of waterborne illnesses. Or technology companies that optimize their product with new features nobody asked for, only to destroy the user experience that made their customers loyal in the first place.
Notwithstanding unintended consequences from well-intentioned solutions like these, the “fix things first” mindset can blind even the best leaders to the human element. It’s also true that fast and ambitious action and the obsession with solutions is not the same as smart action. The key is to suspend brute force problem solving long enough to fine-tune a wiser, more people-centric approach to resolving issues.
To develop a people-first obsession with your crucial relationships, increase the frequency of check-ins and make room for the whole person when you do connect. Pausing the business agenda momentarily may feel like a risk, but it’s not nearly as risky as losing your vital connection with the person.
Over time, the result will be a more candid, open-ended set of conversations that can increase comfort, understanding, and trust. Leaders can thoughtfully inquire with simple questions, such as: What’s going on for you in life and work? Are there any stressors or challenges that I can support with? Are you missing any resources that we could potentially track down to make things a bit easier for you? What else is important for me to know about how you’re doing?
Go deep, or risk being disconnected
Once you create a stronger and more consistent focus on your people, depth matters. That’s because — both during and after a crisis — leaders who don’t keep it real may appear tone deaf and risk being disconnected from the very hearts and minds they’re seeking to influence. The reason? What mattered yesterday may not matter tomorrow because a destabilizing flashpoint accelerates the search for meaning and purpose in both work and life. And most people won’t share these strong, silent drivers with those they don’t feel connected to. University of California, Davis Professor Robert Emmons, one of the leading researchers on personal goals and motivation, calls this phenomenon the psychology of ultimate concerns.
Ultimate concerns are reflected in the deep hopes and goals that align with our values, feel personally relevant, and make life worth living. These are the antidote to fear, confusion, and powerlessness. Relentlessly driving the business agenda, engaging in small talk, or otherwise avoiding what’s in the hearts/minds of people erodes the credibility and trust between leaders and followers.
As a leader, do you know your teams’, clients’, and stakeholders’ ultimate concerns? Or, are you just problem solving and small talking around the superficial issues?
To gain a better sense of what matters most to your team, start by sharing your own concerns. Maybe your values and priorities are shifting in a new or surprising way. Or, maybe family challenges are bleeding into your professional life via some difficult and unexpected experiences. Whatever it is, it’s your willingness to share something real that makes you accessible.
To respectfully explore their priorities, use questions such as: What’s shifted for you over the last few weeks? What feels non-negotiable as values and priorities have been tested? What are you striving toward? What gives you a sense of purpose and meaning — no matter how small?
If questions like these feel too intrusive or uncomfortable for any reason, simply go back to basics: How have you been doing? Is there anything I can do differently to support you? The questions don’t matter nearly as much as how you engage and listen deeply to the response.
Support, don’t rescue
As you engage in more of these meaningful conversations you may hear about troubles and challenges you want to fix, but it’s important to avoid “putting on the cape.” As a leader it’s not your job to rescue them, it’s to meet your people where they’re at. Rescuing enables, while supporting empowers. So despite any positive intentions to heroically swoop in, it’s better to help them recognize their challenges and feel equipped to independently resolve them.
A much more effective and compassionate way to support is to be a lookout for them. Recognizing and calling out the subtle but common pitfalls that surface when stress and tension remain high is meaningful help. For example, it’s likely some of your team members or clients are struggling with one or more of these common issues:
- Over-consumption of news, social media, and unending streams of communication can lead to information anxiety, which heightens feelings of overload and mental distraction.
- Getting stuck in reaction mode and taking on too many things at once can lead to performance whitewashing, which treats all goals and priorities the same and reduces focus on what is truly essential.
- Watering down the message or avoiding hard truths can lead to the mum effect, which causes people to avoid delivering uncomfortable or bad news and limits candid feedback.
- Fear of failure and the desire to avoid mistakes can lead to perfectionism, which limits risk taking and reinforces passive inaction when bold, swift, and innovative action may be critical.
The authors, Kevin Graham Ford and James Osterhaus, called subtle blind spots like these “the things in the bushes.” It’s an apt metaphor at a time when people are fearfully looking over their shoulder waiting for the next shoe to drop. So if you see somebody caught in performance traps like these, respectfully call it out and coach them on a smarter way through it (i.e. I’ve noticed this pattern … how’s it showing up for you? Where are you feeling stuck? What have you tried? Where can I help?). This empowering approach will leave them valuing your support and better equipped to deal with the next one.
When applied in combination, these three strategies can help leaders at any level keep people first — which is every leader’s ultimate concern. This is not only an imperative for sustaining trust during and after a crisis, it’s a foundational requirement for restarting productivity and scaling efficiency back up over time.
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