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My cynicism got the better of me.

A few weeks ago, when this COVID-19 pandemic was beginning I had multiple conversations in which I was asked how leaders could improve organizational culture in this time of distant work and high stress. I said there wasn’t much hope.

I was wrong.

In the time since those conversations I have seen leaders demonstrate care and compassion for their teams. I’ve seen them display sincere vulnerability in appropriate ways. I’ve seen them rally their teams around their mission and take on immense challenges, often with remarkable success. 

I’ve seen cultures strengthened significantly.

It turns out (as people wiser than myself already knew), that times of stress don’t only reveal the cracks in organizational health; they also provide a powerful opportunity to address some of those issues. There is great opportunity in crisis for those who are able to engage it well.

Of course this shouldn’t be a surprise. Some moments are high leverage, and this is certainly one of them. Physical separation from our teams doesn’t prevent us from deepening our connections and affirming our shared commitments. In some cases the change of situation becomes an excellent opportunity to make impactful adjustments.

So, how can leaders improve their culture in the midst of great challenges?

1. Be Human: Sudden adjustment to working from home and worrying about the wellbeing of our loved ones gives us a glimpse into life beyond work for our colleagues. Take time to ask more questions about how people are doing. Be compassionate about the limitations and difficulties of home schooling, cabin fever, constant stress, and loneliness. Talk about your own challenges in a way that doesn’t always set you up as the ideal. Emphasize relationship in the ways that mean the most to your people.

2. Focus on Purpose, not Productivity: We all talk about impact measures and the importance of mission. Now is a time to lean in to that aggressively. People are working odd hours, without familiar settings and resources, and with more distractions than ever. Don’t add to the pressure by having unrealistic expectations. Instead have open conversations about the challenges we face and how we can have the greatest effect for our mission under the circumstances. We need to count results, not activity; and we need to give our people the opportunity to shape their work with that in mind.

3. Celebrate!: For most of us the desperate urgency of the first days of the pandemic is over. Life is turning into a grind, with no end in sight. We are longing for normalcy that may yet be far off. We’ve abandoned most of our goals both professionally and personally, and so many of the typical highlights of our lives aren’t happening. We need celebrations! We need to have our successes recognized and our accomplishments acknowledged. We need the moments of joy to punctuate our days. We need good news stories, victories, and opportunities to cheer one another on. More than ever, we need leaders who are attuned to the power of celebration and committed to making it happen.

I’m not proud of being wrong, but I’m really glad I was. 

This is absolutely an opportunity for organizations to become healthier in ways that will long outlast the current situation. We’d love to help you do that.



Check out The REACTION Dashboard for a practical guide to understanding, assessing, and improving organizational culture in any circumstance.
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