6 ways to lift your team now

How to embrace your human edge and boost organisations through extreme disruption


In 30 seconds...

  • The ability to get through a crisis lies within us all
  • Here’s how we can develop our human edge amid unprecedented disruption.
  • Learning, curiosity and creativity are often casualties of stress – here are 6 ways for leaders to lift their people right now

My work with business focuses on reenergising and reconnecting people with their creativity. Talking about ideas and invention in a time of crisis can seem irrelevant. However, the organisations I work with at London Business School are all in a state of almost constant transformation. They recognise that an accelerating pace of change makes human curiosity and creativity mandatory. 

Here are 6 key leadership habits to lift your team in our chaotic times.

1. Show, don’t tell

Psychological research tells us that you can’t order people to be creative any more than you can tell them not to worry. It just doesn’t work. When it comes to ideas, the employee-employer relationship is a gift economy. Leaders have to craft an environment in which people feel emotionally secure and engaged to give you their creativity for free. I’m often asked by mystified managers: ‘How do you do that?!’ The most crucial first step is to look in the mirror. Even before this crisis, 21st century bosses faced the most personal management challenge in industrial history. Unlike their ancestors, they cannot simply mandate behaviour. They must model it. Inspire your team by first embodying the leadership behaviours in this list. Then encourage them to do the same.

2. Protect our scarce resource: attention

Your will power is a finite resource. It’s like any muscle. It gets tired after long periods of working. This means the ability to focus – to pay conscious, absorbed attention - for extended periods of time is becoming more difficult to achieve and far more valuable as a result.

When we work from home, there is no externally-imposed structure to our day, and we get no visual cues from those around us about what we should be doing. This means it’s even easier to get distracted by social media, news reports, household chores, partner housemates or kids. Here are some simple but powerful techniques for you and your team to rapidly find structure:

Structure Your Day: This can be as basic as keeping an individual and/or team ‘to do’ list on a whiteboard or online collaboration platform to show progress has been made. Individuals should keep their own work diary to show what they did each day.

Batch Emails: We live in a world that expects Formula One-standard response times, which often delivers no discernible value. If it’s not an emergency, check emails three times a day, at a time of your choosing. For the rest of the time, turn off notifications, and log out of your email platform. It’s become fashionable to believe we can do two or more things at once. This is nonsense. Trying to multitask hinders productivity because of the accumulated time you waste switching between tasks. [1] The little email pop up box in the corner of your screen may seem harmless, but it’s not.

Take regular breaks: Go as far as setting an alarm to make this happen. Incorporate stretching, hydration, exercise, meditation and rest breaks into your schedule. To ensure the serendipity of water cooler conversations schedule social chats with virtual colleagues over a coffee.

Don’t waste peak performance: You cannot be at peak performance all day: what psychologists call a ‘flow’ state. This is when you get so involved in an activity that time flies.[2] So, it’s vital to use these wisely, as you can be up to five times more productive in these engaged periods. [3]

To use this for myself, I try to schedule cognitively challenging tasks (writing, solving problems, designing virtual sessions or keynotes) in the morning because I know I’m most productive and creative earlier on. Less demanding admin work can be slotted in after lunch or in the late afternoon. Encourage yourself and your team members to find their unique rhythm.

3. See self-isolation as an opportunity for new thinking

Social isolation can be a gift. After plague closed London theatres in 1606, William Shakespeare had time for writing. According to historians, he churned out King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra during a year away from London. Similarly, in 1665, Isaac Newton self-isolated from Cambridge University to avoid catching the plague. It gave him time to think. The ideas he had on calculus, optics and gravity changed our world. This enforced absence from work was the most creative period of his life. Ask your team: what might you do?

4. Kickstart a culture of curiosity

Curiosity is proven to help you learn more rapidly and effectively. The ability to un-learn and re-learn amid disruption is vital. However, research shows it’s like a cognitive ‘muscle’. Neglect it, it gets flabby.

Exercise it, and it becomes bigger and stronger. We must maintain every day learning in 2020, we need it now more than ever.

Promote the idea that everyone needs a personal learning agenda. Bill Gates purposely self-isolates. When he was the Chairman of Microsoft, he devised a way to prioritise learning in his busy life. Each year, he’d take two separate ‘Think Weeks’ out of the office just to read and reflect in a secluded cottage. During this time, Gates stumbled upon insights which powered Microsoft’s success for decades. [4]

Follow Gates’ lead and send a powerful signal about the value of learning. Appoint volunteer ‘learning mavens’ who’re recognised for their skill in personal development. Promote people who encourage curious learning. Create ‘curiosity badges’ to be displayed on digital platforms and LinkedIn profiles.

An entire ‘Think Week’ is difficult to arrange, if you’re not the Chairman of the board. However, even the busiest people can experiment with the ‘Five-Hour Rule’.[5] This means re-design your working week (See Habit 1.) to liberate one hour each day that’s ringfenced for reflection and learning. Encourage your team to do the same thing.

5. Ask better questions

Sparking creativity requires a decisive change in the power dynamic between leaders and their teams. Global organisations have spent decades curating cultures in which career success is unlocked by following the rules. Now we need the opposite: employees who are prepared to question the status quo.

To give permission it’s vital leaders ‘go first’. Every Friday they should ask: How many questions did I ask this week? What response did I get? Questions help burst the filter bubble that builds up around powerful people.

In theory, it should be easy. In practice, it’s difficult. A boss who asks questions reveals she doesn’t have all the answers. You have to overcome a fear of looking stupid or ill-informed. Great questions feel dangerous because you genuinely don’t know the answer. However, when leaders display this audacious humility it invites those without power to join in to challenge the status quo.

When leaders ask questions like: ‘How might we?’ ‘Why do we do it this way?’ What if…?’ and ‘Why Not?’ it opens a world of possibilities in the minds of their team.

Just think, what would have happened to infamous corporate failures such as Kodak, Nokia, Xerox, Blockbuster, Yahoo, My Space, Polaroid and Borders if they’d developed a culture of persistent questions? Chances are they would have evolved instead of becoming cautionary tales in business school case studies.

6. Use humour to combat stress

When you’re a baby you giggle on average 400 times a day. When you go to work this drops to just 15. [6] Humour is fundamental to who we are and that doesn’t go away in a crisis. More light-hearted team leads to healthier, less-stressed employees. Happy people are more productive and creative. Laughter also facilitates collaboration because it forms a powerful social glue between humans. Prompting someone to smile deepens rapport, intimacy and trust which is vital for cooperation.

In tough times how can leaders spread a little merriment? They might start by taking themselves less seriously. Research shows funny bosses are perceived as actually being more effective. One analysis found outstanding leaders use humour twice as often as those perceived to be average.

It’s not about reskilling to be a comedian. It’s about being open to the possibility that work can be fun. Even an attempt at humour reveals vulnerability and authenticity. It shows you understand, while work may be serious, life can be absurd.

In short, I would argue that in a world, disrupted you need to be more, not less, human.

Greg Orme is an expert on transformational change and a programme director at London Business School. He is the author of ‘The Human Edge, how curiosity and creativity are your superpowers in the digital economy’ published by Pearson (2019) and named Business Book of the Year 2020.



[2] P4, Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi, 2002, Flow, Rider



[5] The five-hour rule was coined by Michael Simmons, founder of Empact, a company devoted to encouraging entrepreneurs.