During the onset of Covid-19 in the U.S., the author conducted a study to find out how professionals were reacting to the unanticipated disruption of a global crisis. Here she applies her findings to the present day, and identifies several behaviors that leaders can adopt to support their employees as we all grapple with ongoing disruption. Although the pandemic has plunged us into unforeseen challenges, the author points out that it’s also given leaders an opportunity to reflect on how to actively demonstrate inclusive and supportive behavior for teams and companies.
The Covid-19 pandemic has separated people from their workplaces, coworkers, and familiar daily routines. In many cases, it has added stress, led to a drop in morale, and fragmented team cohesion — all of which can result in dampened work performance. That’s why actively fostering a sense of inclusion at work is so critical right now.
During the early stages of Covid-19 this April, I conducted a study to find out how professionals were reacting to the unanticipated disruption of a global crisis. I surveyed 187 people working in a variety of industries and occupations in New York and New Jersey, the two states most impacted at the outset of Covid-19 in the U.S. By analyzing 253 narratives, I identified some definitive patterns in leadership behavior that gave employees a sense of stability, empowerment, and inclusion despite the crisis. While this research was conducted during the acute early stages of the pandemic, the following recommendations are deeply relevant to our ongoing, and changing, state of crisis.
1. Show Appreciation
The most frequently cited behaviors (mentioned by 44% of the participants) were recognizing, praising, and otherwise showing appreciation for a person’s work, dedication, effort, and contributions. Some participants mentioned the benefits of small acts of affirmation from their superiors, such as saying thank you for a job well done or sending an email acknowledging their efforts. Others described more visible acts from their leaders, such as talking about an employee’s accomplishments during team meetings, mentioning their work in conversations where managers were present, and giving them opportunities to work more closely with senior leadership. One participant said that even if her supervisor knew that she was not able to focus much on her prior projects due to the pandemic, he would still ask her to share what she was working on currently at a team meeting so her colleagues were aware of and understood how she was contributing. This type of affirmative behavior made participants feel proud and validated during a time when contact with coworkers was limited and fears and uncertainty about job security and the future ran high.
2. Provide Individualized Support
When leaders showed an understanding of employees’ needs, preferences, and circumstances when it came to work arrangements, employees felt it provided the individualized support they needed to help them accomplish work goals. This practice (mentioned by 21% of participants) was especially relevant at the beginning of the pandemic and remains true as the crisis continues. People have different family situations, living arrangements, and socioeconomic circumstances, and varying degrees of familiarity with remote-work technology and best practices.
Some participants recalled that their leaders regularly checked in with them on how they and their families were doing, showing awareness of their specific challenges and signaling their availability. Some reported bosses and managers met with them one-on-one to provide more direction and redistributed work tasks among team members to accommodate different and changing needs. One survey respondent who experienced a difficult transition to remote work while home schooling said his supervisor told him that he would try his best to help with whatever he needed, including offloading tasks to someone who had the bandwidth. These behaviors reportedly helped people feel less stressed, experience more positive feelings toward their leader and their team, and created an atmosphere of trust and understanding that motivated them to apply themselves more fully to work.
3. Involve Employees in Decision Making
In a time of great uncertainty and stress, several participants (15%) noted that they appreciated leaders who sought out, and acted upon, their input. These participants mentioned that their work experience improved when leaders invited them to raise issues immediately, held “what’s your opinion” meetings, included them in discussions of where the group was going, and organized regular open forums for them to ask questions and share their thoughts. They reported feeling trusted, needed, and treated as insiders in their organizations. One participant mentioned that her supervisor asked her to create an assessment process to help make decisions, which signaled to her that she was considered capable, trustworthy, and an integral part of the team.
4. Entrust Employees with New Responsibilities
This may seem counterintuitive given that people’s mental bandwidth is often constrained in times of crises and disruptions, but 13% of participants mentioned feeling empowered when they were tasked with new responsibilities even while organizations scrambled to meet the challenges of the pandemic. This included taking on managerial duties when supervisors were overloaded with additional work to lead new initiatives, and being asked to mentor coworkers because of their existing expertise, or their experience with remote work. These new responsibilities gave employees confidence and the opportunity to get to know other colleagues better, making them feel important to the group’s success.
There are a few helpful questions leaders can ask themselves in this process: Do you tend to be more inclusive of some people than others? Are there people you are inadvertently leaving out? In other words, do you tend to entrust new tasks to people you are familiar with rather than those who best meet the criteria for a given task or project?
5. Designate Time and Space for Team Bonding
Participants (10%) reported important benefits when their leaders created specific opportunities for them to connect and bond with their coworkers. Examples included virtual coffee breaks, happy hours, lunches, time for story sharing, and even games played over Zoom. One participant told me about a regular “thirsty Thursday” meeting where people brought drinks to their virtual team meetings and played games like “Two Truths and a Lie” and trivia, just to loosen things up. These practices helped people get to know each other in an informal setting, helped relieved stress, and motivated them to perform well in their jobs. Another participant said, “If you feel you belong to a team versus as an individual contributor, you are held accountable by peers — which, in my opinion, is more powerful than by your boss — [and] that ‘it isn’t all about money’.”
Although the pandemic has plunged us headlong into unforeseen challenges, it’s also given leaders an opportunity to reflect on how to actively demonstrate inclusive and supportive behavior for teams and companies. Some of these recommendations may come more naturally to you than others; but as we continue to grapple with the ongoing reverberations of the pandemic, the best leadership approach is to emphasize the ones where you feel strong, and take time to hone in on and practice those that feel more difficult. Seek out new ways to expand your repertoire of inclusive behaviors by incorporating some new practices. Having to navigate the unforeseen disasters and catastrophes of a pandemic tests leadership; but it can also help you expand your own comfort zone, and by extension, your ability to lead through crises.
Wei Zheng is an associate professor of management and Richard R. Roscitt Endowed Chair in Leadership at Stevens Institute of Technology. Her research addresses practical questions at the intersection of leadership and diversity such as which practices and mechanisms enhance diversity, how individuals grow into leaders, how leaders influence learning and innovation, and how women leaders navigate gendered organizations. She has studied leadership in corporate, entrepreneurial, national laboratory, and faith-based organizations, and has interviewed more than 120 top-level executives in the U.S. Her research work has appeared in outlets such as Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, and Human Relations.
Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.