So – it’s August. And usually, in August, about 56 million kids in the US go to elementary, middle, or high school, and the majority of them leave home to do so. But these are not usual times. Instead of the typical hustle and bustle and excitement of the back-to-school season, parents everywhere face difficult decisions about the safety and well-being of our kids. If you have working parents in your office, or you are a working parent, these decisions are weighing heavily on the collective psyche of your team and likely impacting your company’s productivity. It’s an emotional time for many of us, and dealing with emotions is tough work – even under normal circumstances.
As leaders, we can’t brush these emotions away or try to ignore them. It’s best to understand what effect they’re having and to develop strategies to work through them. The need for authentic, empathetic leadership has likely never been greater. It’s time to guide our teammates through these unusual, uncertain times.
Uncertainty has consequences
The lack of certainty is defined as a state of limited knowledge. It is impossible to exactly describe the existing state, a future outcome, or more than one possible outcome. I don’t know about you, but that pretty much sums up the way I’m feeling about the pandemic and lack of a known timeline of when this will end or what will happen in the meantime. And it probably sums up the way most of your staff members are feeling. This uncertainty can lead to increased feelings of stress and anxiety and decreased engagement and productivity. As it grows, it can lead to potential burnout and absenteeism. Under the worst of conditions, if limited information is shared with employees, gossip, and false assumptions set in, taking an even greater slice out of customer service and productivity.
Leaders need strategies to communicate and help their employees work through this.
Helping employees overcome the stress of uncertainty begins with you.
In the absence of information, it’s human nature to fill in your own truth. Especially when fear and uncertainty are running rampant, your employees could be worried about their jobs and their livelihood. As leaders, we need to have an effective and consistent communication plan that flows openly back and forth regularly across the organization. Give your employees regular updates on the state of your business, your vision for the short- and long-term future, and what measures are being taken to safeguard their wellbeing. Now is also the time to listen more than we talk. Connecting with employees personally regularly goes a long way in assuring them that you care for them as individuals beyond their work. Consider making it a weekly priority to connect with your team members and ask about their day, their lives, what’s going well, and how you can support their success.
It’s also important that we are the pillar of stability during the chaos, which is no small feat. Recent articles have pointed to pandemic fatigue; we are all beginning to feel, calling out the need to be sure we’re finding healthy ways to cope. On the airplane, they tell us to put on our own oxygen mask first for a reason. We can’t help others if we can’t breathe ourselves. We certainly can’t help our employees if we don’t have the inner resources to do so day in and day out. We must take care of ourselves and make sure we’re managing our own well-being and self-talk.
Behavioral insight is a great asset for tailoring communication and leading through uncertainty.
Behavioral assessments are well known, especially in the hiring process. But now, more than ever, it’s a valuable tool to use on yourself and your existing staff. Self-aware people are more productive and energized. As leaders, the more we understand ourselves and our colleagues, the more effective we can communicate. Knowing an individual’s level of assertiveness, communication style, work habits, and comfort with ambiguity and degree of independence goes a long way in helping the leader tailor the communication. For example, if you have someone who prefers to problem solve with facts and data and doesn’t like being put on the spot in large groups, you wouldn’t want to deliver new information and ask for their immediate opinion on a video conference call. If you have a highly assertive, outgoing salesperson who thrives on in-person sales interactions, they are likely going crazy sitting on conference calls all day. Look for ways to communicate and celebrate sales wins virtually and build in time for social interactions with their colleagues.
Also, do what you can to make it fun. During times of growing uncertainty, the lines between our business and personal lives are getting more blurred. More than 40% of the US labor force is now working at home. That means the boundaries between home and the office are more integrated or don’t even exist. We used to take great strides to separate our business life from our personal life, but now it’s nearly impossible for almost half of working professionals. We’ve even laughed together at the litany of viral videos where the precocious children interrupt mom’s Zoom call, and the dog that kept demanding attention from the local meteorologist.
Encouraging your employees to be authentic and embrace their unique personality traits builds community and workplace trust. Finding ways to share the struggles and tribulations of work-life balance, while being realistic about your own emotions and challenges, will help unite the team around a common theme. Taking care of yourself and brushing up on new ways to lead and communicate will help get you and your employees through these uncertain times and the difficult decisions we make. One thing I am certain of is that we can get through anything if we do it together.
During times of crisis or uncertainty, your employees count on your empathy and ability to help them cope with current events and ultimately get through to a brighter tomorrow. Unsupported team members are at high-risk for being unmotivated, withdrawn, on edge, or even physically absent. On the flip side, a well-guided team will unify, adapt, rise to the occasion, and put the company in the best possible future position.
To effectively lead under these circumstances, you need a communication plan tailored to your team’s communication style and preferences.
Let’s dig into that.
When the world has been upended, some of your employees may panic. Unfortunately, panic is contagious, and its spread can spark rumors, kill productivity, and lead to low team morale. Fortunately, you can keep everyone calm and the situation under control by implementing a communication plan that does these four things:
Let’s look at each in turn.
To prevent rumors from flying, you need to provide timely and honest information to your employees. In the absence of information, people form their own conclusions, and stress multiplies. Sharing information continually helps build trust and diminishes their fear of the unknown. It’s okay to express the situation's seriousness and admit when you’re not sure about something. Even letting your team know you’re not sure of a decision yet is perfectly fine. Your team will appreciate your transparency.
For best results, make sure that crisis-related messaging is consistent across the entire firm -- and not different from team to team. This is a great time to use collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, and video conferencing to vary how you distribute messages and encourage input. At Omnia, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in cross-company communication through the use of channels and polls on Teams. It’s also been a great way to keep a constant pulse on engagement across the teams while everyone is currently so distributed.
While open communication at a company-wide level goes a long way to build trust, you should also reach out to team members individually. Allow individuals to express their emotions, frustrations, and fears in a safe, judgment-free environment.
Don’t be afraid to share your emotions, too. Being warm, personable, and vulnerable shows the employee that you “get it” and builds a sense of camaraderie. While time constraints are understandable, try to reach out multiple times -- especially during prolonged periods of uncertainty.
A crisis often causes confusion, so your employees may not know what they should be doing. To guide them, give them clear instructions on how to support your customers -- and each other.
Remember, since the future is full of question marks, your guidance needs to be concrete and focused on the short-term. Finally, your team needs a continuous source of support to navigate these tough times. So, make sure you follow up often and are easily accessible to answer their questions.
During times of crisis, team unity is critical. A tight-knit group will be more committed to each other -- and the company. To promote unity, speak to the collective talent and strength of your organization. While you shouldn’t make any promises about how the firm will ultimately fare, tell stories about how it has adapted and overcome in the past.
To keep spirits high, remain ever hopeful, and assure your team that you’re in it with them for the long haul. You should also empower your group. Ask them to tap into their strengths. Encourage them to do their best work, given the circumstances. And remind them that they play an important role during these challenging times. Find ways to share what people are doing to learn and apply new skills, and spotlight the impact these are having on your customers and the business.
Your employees have different communication styles and preferences. To ensure that they get the information and support they need, it’s important to be aware of them. Then, you can tailor your approach to each team member.
For example, some of your employees may be extremely analytical. They’re more focused on facts, processes, and numbers than interpersonal relationships. In these cases, you should paint the picture of the situation in a linear manner with supporting statistics, if possible. They will value timetables, and firm commitments of when actions will occur or additional communication will come. Conversely, your more relationship-oriented employees will care more about the impacts of those statistics on actual human lives and may appreciate a video conference over an email or phone call. This group will also value being able to verbally process the messages they are hearing with their colleagues. In the end, you’re providing the same information, just presented differently.
Further, some of your employees thrive in a fast-paced, swiftly changing setting and can handle getting the whole story all at once. Yet, other team members process information more methodically and need to focus on each detail separately. What’s important is that you factor in these varieties of styles and adjust your delivery depending on who you’re speaking with to ensure they get the information they need.
If you’re not sure about your employees’ communication styles, an Omnia behavioral assessment can help! Assessments are short and simple to take yet can reveal behavioral insights you might not have known, even after working with someone for weeks and months. Assessment results will enable you to communicate with and manage each team member more effectively. You’ll unlock how they work best so you can fully utilize their strengths. It’s quick and easy to get started!
When circumstances are difficult or ambiguous, strong leadership and effective communication are even more critical. Your employees will rely on you to support, encourage, and guide them. If you provide consistent, tailored communication with empathy woven throughout, your team will come together, support each other more, and can bravely face what’s to come.
Everyone knows what stress on the job looks like. You can spot it from a mile away. Stressed employees are the ones shouting or locked in a bathroom stall, crying. They’re difficult to work with, and they snap at customers and coworkers. And they tell you. You can’t walk by without them announcing, “I’m soooo stressed!” sometimes even swooning dramatically.
Stress is obvious, and if you don’t know it’s there, it must not be, right?
Not so much. Not everyone handles problems the same way. Some are less obvious about it than others. Right now, valued employees could be struggling with stress, and you may not even realize it.
Here are five signs of stress that are easy to miss:
1. Radio silence: When was the last time you heard from Linda? Her work is being done. She’s meeting all her key performance indicators. But you haven’t actually spoken to her in days. Introverts deal with stress by becoming more introverted. And in a busy office, that can be easy to overlook.
2. Caving: Does Bill agree to do everything suggested by everyone without complaint? Is he apologizing more and deferring to the others around him? Suddenly being overly accommodating or less willing to take any stand can be a sign of stress. Stress makes some people feel like the stakes are too high for almost any action, making it easy for them to be taken advantage of by coworkers or customers.
3. Routine dependence: Jane always gets everything on her to-do list finished by the end of the day. So why did she freak out when you asked her for one more little thing? Some employees have a stronger need for predictability when they are stressed. As long as work goes along unchanged, you might not notice. But add to their workload, try to speed them up, or change something on them, and they can implode.
4. Disregarding procedures: Is Hal suddenly “forgetting” that you asked him to do things a certain way or “misunderstanding” directions? Some employees are more independent than others, which can be a good thing. However, stress can make them intent on doing things their own way and make them impervious to criticism if they don’t follow instructions.
Yeah, but what’s the big deal? Sure, Hal might need a talking to, but if the work is getting done, then why worry?
Often, it isn’t a big deal. Stress comes and goes, and some people take pride in dealing with it on their own. But that only works to a point.
Everyone needs support, guidance, and reassurance sometimes. At the very least, they want acknowledgment they are working through it without complaint. If you’re not doing that, you could be hit with another unwelcome indicator of stress…
5. Ghosting: Whether because they couldn’t deal with the stress anymore or they felt underappreciated, some people leave when they are under too much pressure.
What do you do?
Steps to ease employee stress Get to know your team when they’re at their best. People’s strongest traits can become amplified when they’re stressed: Assertive people can become aggressive. Multitaskers become disorganized. Quiet, tasked-focused folks become hermits, and so forth. Knowing how they perform in good times will help you notice stress in bad ones.
Have regular check-ins so you can identify if anything is different.
Assume that changes in the company and the workload will cause stress and prepare for it. Even if you know the team is capable and can handle it, acknowledge that it’s going to be stressful, and recognize people for stepping up to the challenge.
Consider reaching out to your Omnia Client Advisor for tips and methods for managing employees’ strengths, minimizing challenges, and dealing with stress.
Some companies are great to work for when things are going well, but quite the opposite when things are not or when there are changes in the workplace. In bad times—that is, when profits are shrinking rather than expanding—all the cracks start to show. Managers are meaner, decisions are more capricious and less intelligent, and injustices are more evident.
These companies are like those people we have all met who are charming and fun as long as everything is going their way but then turns nasty and uncooperative in the face of opposition. In fact, such companies could be said to have a character defect. More than that; they lack resiliency, or the ability to adapt to stress and adversity.
In "5 Ways to Build a More Resilient Company," Jay Steinfeld, CEO of Blinds.com, says it’s important for companies to develop a “resilient corporate culture” because resilient companies can bounce back from failure. He suggests the following strategies:
But resiliency is not just about the people.
One reason I find the topic of resiliency intriguing is that I have worked for an organization like that described in the opening paragraph.
I have seen firsthand how bad thinking leads to bad processes that frustrate employees in good times and turn them into finger-pointing malcontents in not-so-good times. These ill-conceived processes also hindered productivity and efficiency, causing more work and poorer performance, stress, and conflict.
Processes matter, and developing good processes before bad times hit is the surest way to both weather those trying times and ensure they are not as trying as they could have been, to begin with.
In "How to Build a Strong, Resilient, and Scalable Business," the author writes:
“ … an unstructured business highly dependent on human intervention will quickly succumb to pressures outside of the status quo. In fact, maintaining the status quo can become the biggest risk, creating a pervasive sense of complacency. The best shock absorber is a scalable business system that drives value to your customers, creates a culture of continuous improvement, supersedes behavioural flaws and constantly aligns the company with market need.”
In other words, smart companies will put processes in place to help manage the inevitable downturns that all businesses experience. The right people plus the right processes make for a more resilient organization.
The right people plus the right processes can also lead to the right culture and the right attitudes.
In “Building a Resilient Business in the Eye of an Economic Storm,” Muhtar Kent, Chairman of the Board and Executive Officer for Coca Cola says, “History has shown us, time and again, that the world's most resilient organizations are those that do more than prepare for change and turbulence. Instead, they see—and seize—opportunity in the eye of the storm.” Jim Collins makes a similar point in Built to Last.
Good people, good processes, and a culture that promotes experimentation and calculated risk-taking are what makes strong and resilient companies able to perform well even under pressure.
Does that sound like your company?
Has your workplace become contaminated with negative energy, negative people, and negative behavior?
If so, you’ve got a big problem on your hands that needs attention.
A negativity culture will affect work relationships, employees’ attitudes toward leadership, coworkers, customers, and ultimately productivity. A negative culture also leads to higher involuntary turnover levels from your best performers, even as your lowest performers—who aren’t hindered by ambition and the need to impact the organization positively—hunker down for the long haul.
But perhaps worst of all, a negative culture will drive out your healthiest performers, who are all too happy to leave behind a workplace characterized by backstabbing, distrust, and fear.
Like I said—problem.
On the other hand, maybe your workplace isn’t characterized by negativity, and you’d like to keep it that way.
Regardless, we’ve got you covered. Read on to find out how.
Negativity contamination doesn’t occur by happenstance. Instead, a toxic brew of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, apathy, cowardice, helplessness, and fear creates a messy problem.
Positive reinforcement. Employees who exhibit bad behaviors are consistently rewarded with promotions, public kudos, and plum assignments.
Negative reinforcement. Employees who complain about bad behavior are shunned, labeled as “troublemakers,” ignored, demoted, or driven out of the organization.
Apathy. Those in authority fail to give a hoot, instead preferring to remain “neutral.” (As though that were possible.)
Cowardice. Those in authority fail to act for fear of the potential negative personal consequences.
Helplessness. Those troubled by the bad behavior and with the heart to intervene have no authority to challenge it.
Fear. Those troubled by the bad behavior remain silent for fear of losing favor or even their livelihood.
The best way to nip negativity in the bud is to manage your company culture mindfully.
Mindful management is an active process and requires forethought, commitment, and determination. Mindful management is strategic.
If you don’t want negativity taking over your workplace, negative behavior must be addressed at every opportunity.
Reward good behavior consistent with the stated values of your organization. Ding bad behavior inconsistent with your stated values. Encourage honesty and openness by welcoming tough questions and criticisms from all levels of staff. Hold bullies accountable.
Don’t hesitate to make changes when changes are needed. For example, if someone is a good technician but a lousy manager, remove her people's responsibilities. Whenever necessary, don’t be afraid to send the incorrigibles packing.
Finally, don’t entertain gossip. I’ve encountered many a leader who dealt in gossip and favored company snitches who regularly gifted the leader with pinches of dirt here and there. Such leaders may believe these transactions keep them in the know, but most of this “knowledge” is of little value, especially considering its true cost. Further, healthy organizations don’t encourage gossip and favoritism. Healthy organizations encourage information exchange through honest dialogue.
If your company is gripped in the jowls of negativity and is looking for a release, senior leadership must first look in the mirror.
To repeat, negative cultures don’t occur by accident. For real change, senior leadership has to get in front of the problem while clarifying what the company stands for and how those beliefs will be enforced in the future.
Of course, talk is merely talk until the standard is challenged. At that point, leadership has the chance to gain trust and credibility by doing the hard but right thing … or not.
What is a hostile work environment?
We may think that we know it when we see it, but that’s not factually correct. A mean boss, gossipy coworkers with bad breath, and the absence of benefits and perks are all unpleasant work-life facts. However, in themselves, these factors do not prove the case. This is because to be legally hostile; there must be discrimination.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, monitors discrimination and determines the rules. Harassment is behavior that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Sometimes hostile behavior is instigated by the employer to push the employee to resign. For instance, this may occur when the employee has reported the employer for illegal behavior, and therefore the employer cannot fire the employee. It need not always be on the employer; union representatives or other employees can harass a new employee for refusing to sign up for the union.
What are the criteria for determining a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment is a workplace so hostile that the worker fears going to work. Specifically:
Note: There must be discrimination only against the protected characteristic. If the manager (or another individual) was hostile regardless of sex, race, etc., then it’s quite legal. Really!
What to do if you have experienced a hostile work environment
If you are subject to a hostile work environment, the first step is to ask the offending employee to cease the bothersome behavior if possible. If you pursue a harassment complaint, your employer is required to investigate it promptly and impartially. The alleged harasser should not have control over this investigation. If you and the alleged harasser need to be physically separate during the investigation, this separation should not burden you as the person who made the complaint.
Note: A lawsuit on the grounds of a hostile work environment will not be successful if the employer had not been informed of the situation and allowed to resolve it.
How the company can defend itself against a charge of a hostile work environment
If the employer is otherwise liable, it can prove that it reasonably tried to prevent and correct the hostile behavior. The employer must also prove that the employee failed to pursue the employer's preventive and corrective opportunities.
For further information and legal advice, contact the EEOC's web site at http://www.eeoc.gov or an employment attorney.