by Edward D. Hess, author of “Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change”
We have just had a stressful year of disruption, trauma, fear and loss. No company will ever be like it was before COVID-19. Neither becomes an employee. This means that no leader can lead like he did in February 2020.
As we head toward recovery, leaders must adopt a whole new mindset and skills.
Not everything is COVID-controlled. We have known for years, even decades, that the old school leadership model has to change. But certainly the pandemic has accelerated the need for a new type of leader.
In essence, leaders need to adopt the mindset and master the skills necessary to create high engagement and enable consistently high performance in ever changing times.
On the path to recovery, leaders must be able to:
Manage your own emotions and behaviors …
Inner peace is a fundamental building block for a hyperlearner for many reasons: It allows you to calm your ego, stay open to the best ideas, and connect with others in meaningful ways. And in times of great chaos (like now), it helps you turn the noise off so you can perform the kind of high-level critical thinking that enables you to make smart decisions.
Inner peace enables you to be a haven of sorts in a storm. A big spotlight will now be on executives, both within companies and in the outside world. That means we have to have a firm grip on our inner world.
… and defuse employees’ fears.
People are really suffering right now, and emotional wellbeing is important. Remember that employees are based on you. Therefore, a state of calm is more important than ever. Part of neutralizing fear is communication. If you don’t do it well and often, people will fill the void with their own worst-case scenarios.
However, defusing fear is more than just going through the movements of communication. It’s about communicating in a way that creates human connection and connectedness. More than ever, people need to feel cared for as unique people.
Create a sense of “We are all together on this and together we will prosper”.
The workplace of the future is a meritocracy of ideas. The old caste system – a relic of the industrial revolution when command and control ruled – is dead. Leaders need to inspire hope, but not in the sense of “don’t worry, we’ll save the rest of you”. The message must be: “Together we will prosper.”
Of course, this message needs to be supported by a workplace environment that allows real collaboration. People need to be able to have quality conversations and it is the leader’s job to create the right conditions – and not let their own ego jump in and ruin them.
Anticipate market shifts and have a disruptive effect.
For example, executives need to know how to manage digital transformation. This is where the hyper-learning mindset really comes in. Executives need to stay open to the future and really listen to customers instead of clinging to old, preconceived ideas and hearing what they want to hear.
Operational excellence will play an important role in recovery and beyond. Every company will be active in the innovation business. Every organization must “go to where the puck will be, not where it was,” as Wayne Gretzky so famously put it.
Proactively manage changes.
Change is the new. Impermanence is the new mindset that is needed. This requires embedding a “story” in your company that enables each employee to embrace change instead of being afraid of change or running away from change. To do this, employees have to learn how to go into the unknown and find out. People need new tools, and small teams are the structure required for continuous adaptation. Change is an iterative process – and change has to be challenging but not overwhelming. Change is emotional. This means that leaders need to understand the psychology of change: what types of emotions / behaviors to expect and how can people be guided into positive emotions?
When people know that they have to keep learning, unlearning and relearning, change is not a disruptive experience. It’s just life
Promote fast, effective, and intelligent collaboration.
Nobody can ever have the answers. It takes teamwork. People need to be able to get smart answers quickly, and that means creating the conditions for collective flow and building what I call “caring, trusting teams.” While many factors play a role in good cooperation, the focus is on “being different”.
Being different is both a mindset and a behavior. Leaders must first overcome their own tendencies in order to seek validation for what they believe in. This means recognizing that they need others to find solutions. They also need to behave in ways that respect the human dignity of others and ensure that all team members do the same.
Keep looking for feedback.
Yes, leaders need to get feedback and embrace it instead of reacting negatively immediately. Accept feedback kindly and gratefully. That takes humility. Assuming you know everything, you are not open to other people’s ideas. Humility requires mastery of the ego. While this may not be easy, it is certainly possible to have a calm ego if you think about it intentionally.
Mindfulness meditation is a method. Another great option is to practice gratitude by saying thank you more often, writing thank you notes to employees, and often acknowledging that you did not reach your leadership position on your own. They had a lot of help along the way.
Create a place where people really want to be.
As the economic recovery takes hold and more opportunities open up, we will see a mass exodus of people who have been mistreated during troubled times. I suggest you are ready to capture them by taking steps to “humanize” your work culture.
In essence, this means that you:
- Be an idea meritocracy. This means that the best data-driven idea or review wins the best, regardless of rank, compensation, or power.
- Maintaining positives in the workplace. Positive emotions enable cognitive processing, innovative thinking, learning and creativity. They suppress negative emotions such as fear and fear.
- Respect human dignity. Respect each employee as a unique person who deserves the opportunity to expand and develop their skills and be economically rewarded in a way that validates their human dignity and enables them to lead meaningful lives.
- Operate “psychological security” across your company. To do this, you need to build trust across the company. This enables people to do “hard things” like provide constructive feedback, question the status quo, and find the courage to take risks.
- Meet people’s self-determination needs. In part, this means that people need to contribute to how they do their job and have a sense of competence in their work.
Adopt a new humanistic way of working.
Managers need to focus on training and developing people so that they can be their “best selves”. Without an entire company of people working at the highest capacity, it will be difficult for any company to survive in a highly competitive market, Hess notes.
Every company will be active in human development in addition to its core business. The quality of your human performance will ultimately be your strategic differentiator. That is why the humanization of the workplace will be important.
COVID was a disruptive factor in the workplace. It required human adaptation and new ways of working. As we move into a post-COVID era over time, executives must accept the reality that the business world will not operate again as it did in early 2020. It is time to move forward, not step back. As you move forward in the post-COVID phase, the rewards can be exponential. Don’t miss out on a good rest.
Edward D. Hess is Professor of Business Administration, Batten Fellow and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and author of Hyper-Learning: Adapting to the Speed of Change. Professor Hess has been a senior executive in the business world for 20 years and has spent the past 18 years in academia. He is the author of 13 books, over 140 articles, and 60 Darden case studies.