LEADING IN UNCERTAINTY: WHY OUR PEOPLE ARE CONTRIBUTING MORE THAN EVER
If you’re like the leaders I’ve spoken to recently, you may be a little surprised by the degree of commitment and ingenuity your people have shown while working remotely. I’ve heard countless stories of people “surpassing expectations”, “working together like never before”, and “delivering miraculous outcomes in record time.” You’ve probably witnessed similar heroics in your organization.
This is one of the big insights from COVID so far; that many employees have thrived in a more self-directed, trusting and autonomous environment. As we slowly return to more conventional ways of working, many leaders are trying to figure out how to maintain these increased levels of commitment and contribution from employees. The first step is to become conscious of what is working, and why it’s working.
Over past weeks, my colleagues and I have repeatedly observed three leadership practices that have had a disproportionate impact on performance, across a broad range of industries, sectors and geographies. It is these practices that are the focus of this blog.
We’ve extended more trust than usual
There is no safe way to build trust. By definition, the only way to build trust is to extend more trust than is warranted in a given situation. Most leaders accept this principle, but have a much harder time putting it into practice. Consciously or unconsciously, we spend significant amounts of time and energy questioning the motives of others, waiting for them to earn our trust, and trying to figure out whether they’re up for the task at hand.
In many ways, the COVID lockdown forced us to skip this step almost entirely. We simply haven’t had time to try and figure out others’ motives or study their capability at each point in the process, so we’ve just assumed that they have a noble intent and have trusted them to get on with it.
It turns out that having extended trust to our people, they’ve not let us down. In fact, they’ve given us significant discretionary effort in return. We’ve achieved more, with less effort, faster.
What might be possible in your organization if higher levels of trust became your new normal?
We’ve been more open to influence
Authenticity, humility and vulnerability are well understood and highly effective leadership principles, supported by volumes of research. Despite this, leaders often ‘wear a mask’, try to project an image of perfection, or pretend that they know it all. Sometimes this is because of personal beliefs and sometimes it’s because their organization rewards invulnerability. Either way, this pretence stifles commitment, diminishes outcomes and perpetuates dependent ‘parent-child’ types of relationships.
In many ways, COVID has forced more authentic and less hierarchical interactions between leaders and their people. After all, how could anyone pretend to ‘know it all’ when everyone has been navigating unchartered waters at the same time, and no one’s had much of a clue about what’s going to happen next?
As a consequence, many of us have invited people in, shared our power, became more open to influence, and far more collaborative. In effect, we’ve engaged in adult to adult relationships, and our people have stepped up and into the space with distinction.
What might be possible in your organization if this type of openness became your new normal?
We’ve created a setting for success
Most leaders know that successfully empowering their people is the difference between winning and losing. When we are responsible for others; whether it be 10 or 10,000, the best way for us to achieve our goals is to enable them to achieve theirs. In practice, however, empowerment is often not much more than a management platitude. Even when leaders are deeply serious about it, more often than not, they dramatically underestimate what is required to put it into practice.
To truly empower our people, we must create a game they can win, and this is where the COVID lockdown has been instructive. The level of uncertainty and disruption has meant that business as usual is not an option, and the well-worn pathways of the past are suddenly obsolete.
We’ve found ourselves in more conversations with our people about what success might look like. We’ve had to evaluate alternative pathways, explore new boundaries and parameters, and tolerate greater experimentation and levels of risk. We’ve also had to create a clearer line of sight between the individual’s contribution and meaningful outcomes.
In effect, we’ve had to create a setting for success, and then actively mentor our people to play their best game. The result has been greater confidence and commitment in our people, not only because they’re much clearer, but also because they’ve felt like “the boss has got my back.”
What might be possible in your organization if this type of empowerment became your new normal?
I hope these three lessons resonate for you, and will help you to amplify your team’s commitment and contribution in a post-COVID world.
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