Leaders can communicate these qualities in two ways, Professor O’Connor says: by what they say and what they do.
- What you say
In crisis communications, “speed is your friend and perfection is your enemy”, according to one expert. It is necessary to be consistent, to be credible and to have compassion. Regularly scheduled, frequent messaging helps.
The leader should be realistic about the challenges everyone faces, hopeful in how the organisation will come through, and must convey a sense that everyone is in this together. This is where a sense of compassion is needed.
2. What you do
Returning to the marathon, leaders—and especially the middle managers and team leaders – must keep the rest of the pack in mind. These are the folks who we need to stay engaged and resilient to help the business through the crisis and into the inevitable recovery.
Research by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci can help these leaders. Their self-determination theory identifies three fundamental psychological needs people have that must be met for people to be healthy, happy, and engaged. I call these the ABCs of Engagement: autonomy, belonging and competence.
Decades of research show that humans thrive and deliver when they can meet these needs.
Autonomy, belonging and competence
Autonomy means having some say over our own behaviour and outcomes. Think of toddlers and the joy they take in saying, “No!” This is an early expression of a need for autonomy. If toddlers have it, your employees have, too. When that need is unmet, people feel unhappy and disengaged. This is true at work and in life.
Belonging is the desire for close relationships, to feel part of a group, to be free to express troubles because you are accepted by that group. People have a powerful need to belong.
Competence comes in two parts. It is both a need to play to our strengths and show what we can do and also an interest in developing new skills. Both aspects are relevant here.
In this current moment of uncertainty, away from their colleagues and working unusual hours to keep up, employees are likely to be suffering. Some may be feeling the pain of isolation and others are exhausted from ramped-up demands. I suggest that leaders consider using the ABCs of Engagement framework to help their employees get through this period. Experimenting with new ways of managing employees is key.
What should leaders do?
Meet employees’ need for autonomy by giving more freedom over when and how they work. The trick here is that during stressful times people tend to respond by tightening control – the “threat rigidity response.” Of course, this instinct to micro-manage undermines autonomy and has the reverse effects on productivity and performance than leaders are seeking.
Professor O’Connor suggests resisting the urge to micro-manage and instead look for ways to provide more autonomy. Begin by setting clear and reasonable-for-now goals and then provide only the level of support employees need in how they meet these goals. She has a few ideas for how to support:
- Manage with compassion for reports’ circumstances
- Allow flexibility in how—and how much—work gets done
- Empower teams to manage their own workloads
- Provide space and time for employees to work on the assignments and projects of their choosing
As far as belonging is concerned, the current working from home regime is undermining this sense of belonging for many. We see less of our teams and are missing the pleasure we often take in each other’s company.
So it is necessary to create activities that help people feel connected, so that they still feel part of a special culture. The difficulty is that the current pressure to act fast now means that this important cultural reinforcement gets lost.
What can leaders do to boost a sense of belonging? Professor O’Connor suggests:
- Update regularly
- Make it psychologically safe to ask for help and encourage people to help and volunteer
- Share your struggles and vulnerabilities to deepen trust
- Encourage reports to invent ways of connecting with other and maintaining their connections to one another and the firm (also meets their need for autonomy)
Current time pressure forces managers to assign responsibilities quickly with an eye toward getting it done. Yet, this is a good time to build engagement by helping employees meet their need for competence: to play to their strengths and to develop new, undiscovered skills.