In high achievement cultures where people are held accountable for delivering on time and their results, there is generally a misconception about what it takes to lead and inspire others. Leaders often believe they need to “be tough” on others to drive results and get the best out of people. If we watch the way these leaders interact with their teams we can immediately know if they are leading by fear or by love. At Axialent, we find leaders who practice compassionate leadership, rather than an iron fist, are more likely to get the results they want.
The first type of leader is 100% result oriented, very focused on the task and the business results. They have a very strong opinion of what needs to be done to expand and grow. Therefore, they generally need to be “in charge all the time”, often using a very directive approach with their teams. They hand out orders to others, correcting people’s behavior on the spot, sometimes providing destructive feedback. Fear of failure (or not delivering results) is so strong and present that they undermine trust, psychological safety, creativity, and innovation.
Although these types of leadership behaviors may achieve business goals in the short term, leaders need to develop a more integral approach to create exceptional sustainable results. An approach that addresses the human dimension as much as the business one. This is what compassionate leadership is all about.
 

Compassionate leadership

 
compassionate leadershipCompassionate leadership does not mean being “soft with people” and not holding them accountable. It certainly does not propose giving up business results in pursuit of caring for people or make them feel connected.  At the heart of compassionate leadership lies the ability to recognize the potential and need of every human being and help them develop and grow in service of the business needs.
It means helping people sharpen their edge with kindness in the service of a bigger goal.
 

Compassionate leaders:

  • Develop a clear and inspiring integral vision.

They strongly provide and thoroughly communicate a clear direction to the desired outcomes and the role teams and individuals are invited to play in achieving the vision.

  • Embrace their own vulnerability and practice self-compassion.

Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen with no control of the outcome (as Brene Brown has stated through her research). Experiencing our own vulnerability and being kind to ourselves is the first step to connecting with others’ vulnerability and feeling compassion.

  • Put themselves in others’ shoes.

They invest time connecting and getting to know their team. These leaders have a genuine interest in them and the challenges they face. They build strong, trusting bonds. Compassionate leaders master the right balance between containing and challenging people to help them get unstuck and carry forward. They understand we all fail and make mistakes, and this is part of our development journey.

  • Speak their truth with honesty and respect.

Compassionate leadership is usually thought of as leaders sugarcoating messages to avoid people getting hurt. They are seen as avoiding conflicts, difficult conversations, or providing any feedback that might challenge people to consider a different perspective. In reality, compassionate leaders do just the opposite. They communicate thoroughly, provide constructive feedback, and have difficult conversations, all in the service of the growth of their people and the business.

  • Are committed to helping people grow and achieve their individual goals.

They will not withhold important feedback that can contribute to others’ development. They’ll own their opinions and express them constructively being true to themselves and being respectful to others.

  • Have a bias for action.

Compassionate leadership is not only about connecting and understanding people’s pain and challenges. It’s also about helping them see what they can and need to do to move forward, overcome adversity, grow their resilience, and encouraging them to do so.
 

Conclusion

How do you choose to lead your organization? How do you want to be remembered? What do you judge to be the most effective way to deliver your business results?
Compassionate leadership is a matter of choice. It helps create a safe container for people to feel cared for, seen, and valued while being supported to stretch out of their comfort zone and learn what’s needed to excel.
 

A lot has been said about COVID-19’s impact on mental health. Research shows that rates of depression, stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress have risen significantly in the last year. While we have not yet recovered, some places are slowly recuperating their lost freedom, and others are still finding their way forward. We have all been affected by the pandemic. We have suffered losses in this exhausting process: from loved ones, to jobs, to our own health, opportunities, connection. And we are still mourning and longing for our losses. As organizations and leaders, how can we provide the support our people need and access our own emotional intelligence in times of COVID-19?
In this fast-changing environment where we are permanently looking for instant gratification, we often struggle. We find it challenging to connect with our own emotions and open ourselves to others’ experiences and requests for help and support. It takes a lot of courage to inwardly listen to our emotions instead of sweeping them under the rug and accepting them with compassion and without judgment.
Organizations are starting to take this issue seriously. They want to help people improve their quality of life and their working experience. They recognize the impact wellbeing and work-life integration have on midterm performance and effectiveness. In the last year, we have seen organizations deploying multiple initiatives spread across all levels, offering a complete menu of tools and skill learning to support people through these challenging times.
 

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Times of COVID-19

 
Emotional Intelligence in times of COVID-19
Of all the skills we can learn, developing emotional intelligence might be the “make it or break it” key capability for this new era. It is the key skill all leaders need to cultivate to lead effectively, caring for their people. And it has never been so collectively relevant.
Emotional intelligence refers to our ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own and others’ emotions. When we can manage our emotions, we respond more effectively to any given situation vs responding instinctively in a fight, flight, or freeze mode (behaviors led by our reptilian brain).  It helps us deal with stress and see clearly, making better decisions in our life. It builds up our resilience: the ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks.
Developing emotional intelligence also helps us improve our relationships and increase collaboration. It helps us empathize with how other people are feeling, putting ourselves in their shoes and feeling in our own body how others are feeling.
While many of us agree that emotional intelligence is a key skill, most leaders lack it. The good news is that we can train our brains to master our emotions.
 

Increasing Emotional Intelligence

 
Recognize:  The first step is to acknowledge what is happening. Listening to the emotions in our body, mind, and heart, connecting with the feeling it brings along, and sustaining its discomfort. Naming our emotions can help surface them and bring some perspective.
Understand: Our emotions are feelings created by conscious and unconscious thoughts and interpretations and they all are impulses to act. Every emotion has a message and requests an action from us. Self-inquiring uncovers meaning for our emotions and the story underlying the emotions.
Express /act constructively: Regulating our response our to own emotions and others’ emotions is crucial (it is thinking before reacting). It is about being able to share our interpretations and the thoughts underlying our emotions with honesty and respect. Sharing our core truth, expressing what really matters to us, in an impeccable and effective manner, without hurting our relationships and being true to ourselves.
COVID-19 has been emotionally devastating for many of us. It has put us to the test and has reinforced the need for and importance of developing our emotional intelligence to navigate in these unprecedented times effectively caring for ourselves and others.

inclusive team culture
We often talk about inclusion in the context of broader conversations about diversity and equity programs and initiatives. It’s true that high levels of inclusion are necessary for diversity practices to positively impact and develop trust in groups1, but an inclusive team culture is generated by everyday interactions.  Inclusion is also applicable to every person in an organization, not just underrepresented groups.  You can have a homogenous team with low levels of inclusion.  Any one of us can experience the benefits of inclusion and the detriments of exclusion at any time. So, how do we create a more inclusive team culture?
To understand the impact that inclusion (or lack of) can have on a team, think about a recent meeting where you didn’t feel heard or comfortable sharing your opinion because your point of view was different from the rest of the team.  How did it feel?  Most likely it impacted your level of engagement with the group and your willingness and ability to contribute to the meeting.

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”
– Phil Jackson

A team is inclusive when its norms are carefully constructed to promote experiences of both belonging and uniqueness for its members.  According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, we are spending more time than ever in meetings at work since the stay-at-home orders and lockdowns started in 2020.  So, if meetings are one of our most frequent and important forms of interaction with others at work, we should be intentional about how we conduct our meetings to foster a more inclusive team environment.
 
Below are some ideas on how to intentionally design and facilitate more inclusive team meetings.
 

Observe patterns

If you intentionally pay attention to your next 2-3 team meetings, you will likely see behavior patterns emerge. Are you spending more time talking than listening? Does everyone have an equal opportunity to participate? Is someone dominating the conversation?  Are people being interrupted? Do people talk over each other? Who is silent or only speaks when prompted?
 

Be clear on the meeting intention

Once you have an informal assessment of how inclusive your team meetings are, try to make the next one better. Start by defining the meeting objective – Is it to inform? To brainstorm? To decide?  Be clear on your intention and determine the meeting agenda according to your objective and desired outcomes.  This will help you define the attendee list and make sure that no one is unintentionally left out.  To make the meeting more productive, share the agenda with the team in advance.
 

Conduct small experiments.

Based on your observations, try some new approaches in your next meeting to be more inclusive. Here are some ideas:

  • Do a quick check-in at the beginning of the meeting. People work better together when they get to know each other as individuals. This may be challenging in virtual and hybrid work settings. To help people be present and share how they are coming into the meeting, do a check-in where each person answers two questions: How has your day been so far?  What do you want to get out of this meeting?
  • Inclusive informing. Discuss with the team, who else needs to know about this? Did we unintentionally leave someone out? How can we effectively communicate this information to others outside this team?
  • Inclusive brainstorming and discussion. If the purpose of the meeting is to brainstorm and discuss ideas, consider breaking the bigger group into smaller groups to increase interaction and allow everyone to contribute. In smaller groups, you can have team members write down their ideas independently before brainstorming and then use a round-robin approach to ensure that each member shares their ideas.
  • Inclusive decision-making. If the purpose of the meeting is to decide, define and communicate upfront who will make the ultimate decision. Do you need more information from the team or do you want the team to decide as a group?  If the former, a good technique is to allow people to vote silently on ideas, so team members are not unduly influenced by the votes of others.
  • No interrupting rule. It’s a simple as it sounds, prohibit interrupting at your meeting. Gently, but firmly, call out when people are interrupting or speaking over others.
  • Do a quick check-out at the end of the meeting. Leave time at the end of the meeting to understand how each participant feels and if they felt that the team accomplished what they set out to do in the meeting. This will give you valuable feedback to see how your experiment went and what you can improve for the next meeting.

 
Culture gets created or reinforced in each and every interaction.​ So, why not leverage the time you spend in meetings to make a difference in driving a more inclusive team?
 
____________________________________________
1Downey, S. N., van der Werff, L., Thomas, K. M., & Plaut, V. C. (2015). The role of diversity practices and inclusion in promoting trust and employee engagement. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(1), 35- 44.
 

At Axialent, we are not experts in Agile. Our expertise lies in helping organizations build the cultures they require, in light of their business strategy, and develop their leaders to be living proxies of that culture. In the last two decades, agile has emerged as an unstoppable practice among organizations, and it is changing their cultures. The question for us is: are you managing the resulting culture change intentionally? Is agile shaping your culture by accident or by design?
agile shaping your cultureAdopting an agile way of working can be fraught with challenges. We experienced this first hand when we launched an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. I’d like to share the lessons we learned behind the scenes of what was probably the most audacious adoption of agile in a non-tech industry. We accompanied the top 200 leaders of this organization, in 24 cohorts, across 11 countries, in a 6-month long journey that combined coaching them individually and as leadership teams. This gave us a privileged vantage point to observe their struggles and the gaps they were trying to bridge.
In this first article of a series, we will focus on the specific challenges we witnessed, because we follow this principle: ‘no gap, no coaching.’ Clarifying the gap before we intervene helps us gain a deep understanding of the problem, empathize with our client, and offer higher chances of finding an adequate solution to prototype, test, and learn.
Here are some of the conclusions we reached after exposing the gap:
 

1. Agile brings about a new leadership paradigm and not just a more effective way of working.

It is hard to imagine companies embarking on an agile transformation and taking it lightly. They aim to become much better in terms of quality, time-to-market, productivity, and, above all, employee engagement. Most believe that adopting agile unleashes talent, makes team members accountable and generates one-team dynamics. Other firms might be driving a similar shift, but they’re not calling it an agile transformation. The name is not what matters. Beyond the rituals and ceremonies they adopt, or the frameworks they embrace, the essence of today’s business transformations lies in changing how leadership is felt, conceived, and performed, in a way that is radically different. This happens in most cultural transformations. The difference that agile brings is the context.

2. From rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership to servant leadership 

In this company’s context, the gap for leaders was shifting from a rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership style to a servant leadership style. This change required the top-most executives to give up being the center of the organization. They were now expected to be at the service of the teams who worked closer to their clients than the leaders ever were. They were supposed to coach those teams, instead of giving them detailed instructions. Leaders’ main focus now had to be on removing any and all obstacles that prevented those teams from delivering value to the customer as quickly and effectively as possible. Even if those obstacles were the leaders themselves.
Can you see how counter-intuitive this could be for an executive who climbed the ranks by being a good soldier, was promoted for being a great soldier, and just as he or she was about to reach the summit of a 2-decade-or-more climb is told ‘sorry, the glory is down there?’

3. From micromanagement to  autonomy, engagement, and empowerment 

For employees, the central gap was shifting from a culture of micromanagement to one where autonomy, engagement and empowerment are expected, exercised, and promoted. The intention was to evolve from being managed and having linear career expectations to self-managing themselves and their own career. Why? Because this company believed that it would help them shift from feeling resignation, skepticism, and fear of feedback to feeling engaged, empowered, and looking at feedback with openness and acceptance. The logic was attractive. However, change was not automatic.
 

From Do Agile to Be Agile

At Axialent we believe that, for any change that truly matters, it must operate first at the Be-level. It’s in that mushy place where thoughts & feelings, values & beliefs, and needs & wants reside (and that top execs seldom look at from so high above) where we have found the most significant leverage. From there, the leaders and those they lead can shift behaviors more effectively at the Do-level. Training people how to do agile was not enough. They needed to dive deeper and actually be agile.
In that deep side of the pool, there is anxiety, tension, and even fear among leaders and team members alike. “What will happen to me and my career in this company?”, “How can I protect my safe haven?” “Will we increase risk by letting go of control?” “What do you mean that control is ‘bad’? We’re a regulated company! Control is not only good – it’s mandatory!” Reconciling these dilemmas was suddenly part of their job description. They looked at their toolkit and realized they needed a different set of tools to deal with this new reality. So, we set off to replenish them from our stock.
Understanding these gaps helped us walk in our clients’ shoes as we embarked on this journey alongside them. In the following two articles of this series, we will explain the design principles we followed and the most prized lessons we have learned and would apply in the next opportunity that comes our way. Come along for the ride!

Conversations that are emotionally difficult or complex in nature are often stressful.  Whether it is difficult feedback, a performance review, communication of a change that has far reaching impact, or even a conversation to terminate a working relationship, many people struggle with the best way to have these kinds of conversations. They are challenging in person, but to have them online brings it to a whole other level. Why? In part, because we don’t have all the non-verbal clues we normally pick up on during a conversation. It is less social. The potential for misunderstandings is increased and many feel less comfortable looking at a screen and not into the eyes of the other person. With more and more companies making WFH the new norm beyond COVID19, having difficult conversations online in an effective and compassionate way is a critical leadership skill.
The 3 Keys to Having Difficult Conversations Online: man with hands openIn over 15 years of leading global remote teams, I have experienced firsthand how critical this is for the success and wellbeing of a team, its leader, and the organization. Your ability to have respectful, compassionate, honest, and straightforward conversations online will shape your culture and be a key lever for a high performance.
Let’s imagine you have to communicate a decision that will impact one of your team members and you assume that they won’t be happy about it. The easy way out would be to just send an email, communicate the decision, and hope for the best. My first and most important recommendation is to resist that impulse and muster the courage and respect to have a conversation. There are certain things that I believe should not be discussed by email, chat, or voice message. They deserve to be synchronous and in real time.

The 3 Keys to Having Difficult Conversations Online

Here are my top 3 tips for having difficult conversations online in an effective and respectful way. While some of them may seem trivial, I have personally experienced the difference they can make.

  1. Prepare for connection

Thorough preparation communicates respect to the other person in the conversation. It helps to reduce your own level of stress and increases the chances of achieving an outcome that serves everyone involved and the task.

  • Set a clear intention for the conversation and communicate the purpose to the other person with enough time for them to be well prepared. You may even ask them to reflect upon specific questions.
  • Create a respectful, safe environment. Be on time. Be mindful of not having a distracting (zoom) background. Try to ensure you will not have any interruptions. Even though this can be difficult under the current circumstances, you can try by locking the door or clearly communicating to others in your home that you need privacy. Silence your phone and computer so you will not have pings from text messages or email. Be in a calm, focused state. Ensure a stable internet connection and reliable equipment (microphone and camera).
  1. Create a shared space for exploration  

The level to which you can be focused on the person in front of you and the conversation at hand will influence how deep you can go, how much psychological safety will exist, and how creative the outcome may be.

  • If you feel it is needed, acknowledge the impact the circumstances may have. “I wish we could have this conversation in person. Because we are not able to, I want to simply acknowledge that the circumstances are not ideal, but I am committed to do my best to minimize the impact. I hope you’ll do the same”
  • Give your undivided attention.
  • Switch off self-view so you can fully focus on the other person. Whenever possible, have potentially difficult calls with the camera on and remember to make eye contact on a regular basis.
  • If you take notes, don’t type on the same device that you are using for the call. Either use pen and paper or a digital device that you can write on. Let the other person know beforehand that you may take notes from time to time.
  1. Optimize for impact 

Whenever there is physical distance, try to minimize emotional distance and be aware of the intention – impact gap. Just because you have the best intention for this conversation doesn’t mean you’ll have the impact you had hoped for.

  • Take your time – don’t rush. This conversation may take more time online than it would have in person. Plan for additional time before and after the call in your calendar, in case you need to extend.
  • Be curious, ask questions, and then listen, listen, listen. Listen with the intention to understand and not to judge or justify your perspective.
  • Check for understanding and be specific – have examples, illustrate your perspective, explain the assumptions you’ve made.

This list is far from complete but has served me well. I hope it will encourage you to strive to have difficult conversations online with respect, humility, and courage. Then a “difficult” conversation has the potential to turn into an enriching experience for everyone involved, regardless of the reasons why we were having it in the first place.

The truth is, sometimes I dream of going back to February of this year when the coronavirus had not yet come to challenge us and change our lives. Other times, I think that COVID-19 has stimulated reflection and accelerated innovation that we had been resisting. Living this calamity at the head of a company breaks every seam in any comfort zone. At the same time, it has given us a unique opportunity to learn about disruption and management, to understand the importance of corporate culture in navigating the storm and to realize that in the end, it is always people who matter most. Leading a company through the crisis of COVID-19 presents us with continuing challenges we never thought we would have to face.
Leading a Company Through the Crisis of COVID-19: two leaders walk side by side
 

Leading in uncertainty

In these months, the ability to find meaning in the midst of uncertainty has been critical. And to be able to do that, we must have an open mind, practice curiosity, be willing to listen to different opinions, and learn from others. We also must be willing to experiment and accept failure when it occurs.
We have spent a lifetime talking about vision in companies. Never has the ability to frame a vision and to get others on board been so Important. We used to theoretically analyze exponential acceleration, now we need to create an exciting story that gets people on board, quickly.
The ability to relate within and outside the company, to influence, negotiate, and communicate genuinely is also an important lifeline. It becomes essential when a company’s survival depends on convincing those at home that we have to tighten our pay belts and those outside that they should finance you at an uncertain time or continue to hire your services in the midst of an unknown recession.
In a new and challenging environment, of which we don’t have any previous examples to refer to, supporting people, especially those you work with directly and who manage teams, is another key management skill. Application coaching, focused on management challenges, is a very useful tool in business leadership.
 

Leading a Company Through the Crisis of COVID-19

The pandemic has changed the game for all of us. Now it is no longer a question of predicting the future, but of inventing the present. To lead in times of pandemic is to invent. It means managing change by making thoughtful and courageous decisions that design new scenarios. This requires promoting a culture of learning at all levels while providing what is needed to foster resilience. We are living in an emotional, economic, and social roller coaster. A leader’s best contribution is to empathize, help, and provide some certainty so that people find meaning in their work.
If I had to recommend one thing to leaders in these uncertain times, I would tell them to be ambidextrous. Be able to live between the old and the new. Be able to manage what is happening now and help create what is yet to come. Understand human resistance to change and accept innovation and disruption. Dare to dream and make the new normal a better normal than the one that the COVID-19 has taken from us.

In the extraordinary circumstances of today’s world, we are being bombarded by a myriad of contradictory information, while watching the devastating effects on businesses and people we value. While all this is going on, we also need to deal with the effect this has on us as individuals and leaders, build a coherent narrative, and take action. Different people will be affected by different emotions. They might arrive at diverse conclusions and recommendations on how to move forward. How do we deal with the polarities at play amid COVID-19? What is the best way forward when fear and anxiety are the dominant emotions?
Polarities at play amid COVID-19: Road leading into the future
 

Polarities at play

Organizational learning researchers, Chris Argyris and Donald Shon, found that when managers were asked how they behaved with their teams, they responded according to the “Mutual Learning Model.” They spoke about values such as collaboration, humility, curiosity, and learning. However, when Argyris and Shon observed these same managers in action, they saw them behave very differently. Their management style was more aligned with the “Unilateral Control Model.” They consistently tried to beat their counterparts, get their own way, and control others. They didn’t admit their own mistakes and instead, would blame others. For too long, traditional education has valued knowing over learning, certainty over uncertainty, having the right answer over asking questions, and assertiveness over curiosity and tentative exploration. No wonder the managers behaved as they did.
At the same time, the managers couldn’t openly act in this way, it would be completely unacceptable. Therefore, they would act like they were not trying to control others and were more consistent with the Mutual Learning Model. When this duplicitousness takes over, organizations (and their people) go crazy.
 

Some examples of the current polarities at play amid COVID-19 are:

  • Pay attention to the health of our people, but go back into full production right away.
  • Assure people not to worry and do their jobs, but worry about the future and the new normal.
  • Tell the truth, but don’t bring bad news.
  • Take risks in an uncertain context, but don’t fail.
  • Beat everybody else, but make it look as if nobody lost.
  • Be creative, but always follow the rules.
  • Promise only what you can commit to deliver, but never say “no” to your boss’s requests.
  • Ask questions, but never admit ignorance.
  • Think long-term, but deliver on your immediate KPIs.
  • Most important of all, follow all these rules, but act as if none of them exist.

 
The inability to discuss apparent contradictions, and furthermore, the inability to discuss that they are “undiscussable” such as the last rule states, create what Argyris and Shon describe as “organizational schizophrenia.”
There is no silver bullet to deal with these contradictions. What I am about to say may sound naïve. However, we have tried it over and over with hundreds of executives across different geographies with excellent results.
 

The way to deal with undiscussables is… to make them discussable

The first step is, with empathy and compassion, to help people become aware that there is a contradiction at play. Even before attempting to solve it, we need to acknowledge the apparent polarity. Once “we have a contradiction,” rather than “the contradiction has us,” we can engage in conscious conversations.
Contradictions happen in organizations all the time. Different people look at a set of data and make their own interpretations based on their personal history, past experiences, what is important to him or her, their intentions and more. They create a narrative that might blatantly contradict the narrative of others. Sometimes those others are influential people, colleagues with more authority than them.
 

Let me illustrate this with a practical example:

One observable fact: John, the leader of the team, doesn’t speak at all during his team’s meeting with other areas.
Different stories for different people: In Sam’s mind, Sr. VP of Marketing, a leader should voice his opinions, be assertive, and offer guidance to his team. Sam concludes that John has poor leadership skills and will not recommend John for the available senior position in Marketing.
On the other hand, Peter, Sr. VP of Sales, believes that a leader should be measured by how well his team performs. A great leader, Peter believes, is one who makes his people say, “we did it ourselves.” John’s team performed outstandingly during the meeting. They had great ideas and made practical recommendations. In Peter’s mind, this speaks very highly of John, their leader. Peter concludes that John should be offered the available senior position in Marketing right away.
One set of facts, completely different stories, opposite conclusions and recommendations.
The way to have a constructive conversation on the matter is for Sam and Peter to understand how the other has built the story, how the observable facts turn into interpretations, and how these combine with values to give birth to their opinions. They can acknowledge that they both create different stories and value different things.
I can’t promise that they will solve their problem. What I can assert is that they will have a very different conversation about John’s performance.
 

Applying this process in VUCA reloaded

If you were able to ask openly, from a place of humility and curiosity, questions like, “how do you expect me to be creative AND always follow the rules?” you might discover what your boss really wants. For instance, perhaps what she really wants is that you don’t put your division in an unrecoverable risk position, should your project fail. By having this open conversation, you will learn how this is not a contradiction to her and that both can be accomplished.
To survive and thrive, you have to be able to put the polarities and tensions created by this hyper volatile context on the table. Talk about them with the mindset of the learner; understand how everything can be true at the same time. You can do so by looking through the lenses of creativity, interdependence, and “yes, and” ways of thinking. Doing so may help you to discover options that, from a place of “either-or,” had looked utterly impossible to integrate. You are making once “undiscussable” topics “discussable.” While it’s easy to say, it’s not so easy to do. But it must be done if you wish to create a more conscious organization that can effectively deal with Covid-19 and the emerging challenges of the new normal.

Survivor Syndrome: Gather Information and Act. Pile of stones going from large to small at the top.
In the first article of a series I initiated with Fran Cherny, Survivor Syndrome: Overcoming Organizational Trauma in Times of Crisis, we offered some thoughts to start helping you, and leaders in your organization, support your employees get back to their best and grow the power of adaptability and resilience we all need now more than ever. Now it is my turn to come back to this series of articles and share with you some thoughts about the last action we suggested in our first article: “Gather information and act fast.” This important aspect of crisis leadership is about interactive and empathic communication in the context of accelerated digitalization of our social connections at work due to this Covid-19 crisis.
The number one need employees and managers have in the current context is for their organization and leaders to actively listen, with empathy and compassion, to their feelings, fears, difficulties, and what support they need., This is the first step to treating any trauma.
 

Managing organizational trauma

As Constanza Busto said, do not be misled by a quite common Knower posture consisting of believing that we well know what our people are feeling, what needs to be done, what’s best for the other person and needs to happen. This would be a double mistake. First, this would ignore the diversity of your employees’ feelings and needs. Secondly, what really matters is for your people to have the opportunity to express themselves and for you to show empathy, care, and compassion at work in the current context.
I see 3 key steps to manage organizational trauma:
1) Encourage your people to express and discuss their vulnerability.
2) Build a shared purpose as an organization in the context of what you will choose as your new normal, or new future, post-crisis.
3) Permanent and interactive two-way communication.
 

Gather information

Some companies are already running initiatives to concretely gather the data and feedback they need to help their people address trauma and grief (of self and of others). These initiatives include:

  • Regular employee pulse surveys and/or focus groups: Stop waiting for the annual survey or the perfect organizational way of doing it instead of using simple tools and surveys. You could pose a question of the day or week, such as, “how do you feel this week about x topic?” There are easy and simple applications, like “Happyforce,” to measure how your people are feeling in general every day and/or how they feel about a specific topic. It is not only about asking, but also about acting on it. Quick, simple, and effective.
  • Group webinars on health & wellbeing with active participation from employees to better manage their physical and mental health, as well as practice and grow their emotional mastery.
  • Online peer to peer group coaching programs: Consider a series of regular 60 to 90 minute webinars during which small groups of leaders (5 to 6 max) and their coach practice how to bounce back and rebuild their response-abilities to the crises they face.
  • Cascading of “Reflection Dynamics:” A top-down process of monthly 1 hour in-person or online team meetings on well-structured reflections. Managers can discuss challenges with their team and ways to practice effective mindsets and behaviors that will help them, and the company, overcome concrete pain points. Then, each team member cascades it down to their own teams.
  • Create virtual spaces to connect: Organize a weekly virtual café (via Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, etc.) to encourage people to reconnect personally, beyond work issues.

 

Take advantage of this opportunity to gather information and act

This crisis is not only about trauma and disruption, it is also a fantastic opportunity to grow for people and businesses. In the past 3 to 4 months, we have seen extraordinary demonstrations of resilience, agility, creativity, speed in decision and action, collaboration, empathy, and solidarity in our organizations, cities, communities, and families. Leveraging these bright spots in your organization is a very effective way to help your employees and managers get back to their best with inspiring examples of “what we can accomplish together.” You can do this by gathering facts and data with structured tools and processes. The same tools and processes also apply to identify and measure what did not work, what should we do differently and what we must do to fix the roots of the current organizational trauma or difficulties.
Beyond any of these examples, my number one point about managing organizational trauma is that inviting your people to express and discuss their vulnerability is the best way of making them stronger and better.

When we are facing new, difficult circumstances that we’ve never faced before, it is often much harder to respond in a constructive way. Our reptile brain unconsciously chooses between two bad options: fight or flight. Although we know this intellectually, this doesn’t mean we can get ourselves out of the trap so easily, or support others to do so.
In the article I wrote with my colleague, Thierry De Beyssac, Survivor Syndrome: Overcoming Organizational Trauma in Times of Crisis, we talked about how leaders can to respond to the current challenges in a constructive way. One of these ways is asking people what they need to be at their best, inviting them to be players and to regain control of their situation.
Survivor Syndrome: Tapping into the Player Within. Image of two business women talking
When we are in a leadership position we must challenge ourselves, not only to maintain our center, but also to be at our best to help others around us. However, many times what we see, as Constanza Busto shared in her article Survivor Syndrome: Building Bridges, is that we believe we know what needs to be done and what’s best for the other person. We can’t believe they don’t see it when, for us, it is so clear. Often, while we are thinking that about others, others are thinking the same thing about us. So, how can we escape from this unhealthy loop? For starters, as Constanza suggested, we meet people where they are, with no judgement, just making their stories and situations true and reasonable. Before we make them wrong, try making them right.
Only once that step is done, once we empathize, are we ready for the next part of the conversation. It is time to “coach them out of victimhood,” to help them connect with the player mindset. This means empowering them to think for themselves, encouraging them in a gentle and kind way, and helping them discover their next best step (just one little step) toward a new trajectory.

How do we do this?

  1. Validate their story: Make them feel safe and understood. If we could put ourselves in their shoes, we would be feeling and thinking the same thing.
  2. Ask questions that empower:
    • Help them build a small, short-term vision: “If you had a magic wand, what would be happening now?”
    • Ask “What can you do about it?”: a) Based on what you have envisioned, what is in your control? What can you influence? Is there anything you can now do to start moving in that direction? b) Is there anything you can ask someone for? Do you need to make any requests?
  3. Listen without judgement: Becoming a sounding board, coming from a place of understanding and compassion, for what they feel they can and cannot do, will make a big difference.
  4. Moving from ideas to actions: Help them commit to one “baby step” and be of service.
    • What could be your next move that you commit to try? When will you try it?
    • Can I support you in any way for you to try this?

Tapping into the Player Within

Try to follow these simple steps and remember that it’s not just the questions you ask, but from which emotional state and with what intentions you do it. Make sure you prepare to be of service from a place of humility, care, and helping others. The goal is to accompany your employees to find their own way to be effective with the tasks ahead, to gain trust in you, and feel good about themselves in such difficult times.
Remember, when a person is not at their best, the question we need to ask ourselves as leaders is: how do I choose to respond to effectively support this person to move on and be at their best? Above all, keep in mind that this is not only my choice, but my opportunity to grow and develop as a leader.
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In our next article, we will discuss how we can all create a brighter future together in the months ahead.

In Fran Cherny and Thierry De Beyssac’s article, Survivor Syndrome: Overcoming Organizational Trauma in Times of Crisis, they mention “meeting people where they are” as a way of helping your organization navigate this difficult time. What does it mean to “meet people where they are?” Why it is important?  
In life, we are all seeking experiences that make us feel good, loved, and give us a sense of belonging. We crave connection. The workplacein any format, is not the exception. According to Forbes Magazine, on average, we invest a little less than half our time at work in meetings, interacting with colleagues. There are plenty of opportunities to build connection and strong, trusting relationships, and yet, often we feel disconnected and sense a lack of belonging. 
Survivor Syndrome: Building Bridges and meeting people where they are. Two hands, one on either side of a pane of glass in a windowMoreover, during difficult times and crises in an organization, leaders tend to focus all their energy in trying to survive and keep the business going; learning to transform the business while running the business. Relationships are sometimes overlooked, and connection is postponed for “when the right time comes.”
In Axialent, we believe that what we do as leaders shapes our organizational culture and how we choose to respond during crisis is what makes the difference.  
Responding to the challenge in a constructive way and supporting people to be at their best will help organizations grow their power of adaptability and resilience: two things we all need desperately, now more than ever. 
 

Building connections and meeting people where they are is a step toward supporting people to be at their best

So, if meeting people where they are” makes us feel loved and valued and can help us thrive, why do we often experience disconnection or misunderstandings instead? 
It turns out we can find it difficult to connect with others: 

  • It takes work and energy: Empathy is hard work. According to the American Psychological Association, people sometimes choose to avoid empathy because of mental effort it requires. 
  • It can be painful / uncomfortable to see people we love & care for suffer: We want to save people from suffering. We cannot “spare people from living the process.” The only way out is through.
  • We get frustrated and anxious for the time it takes to walk the journey: We sometimes feel that talking about what has happened is not the best investment of our time, and it’s frustrating. “Lets go into solution mode NOW!  
  • Knower Energy: We believe we know what needs to be done, whats best for the other person and what needs to happen. “How can they not see it? It’s so clear!” 
  • Our own judgment: We experience disappointment when we feel that things or people are not being good enough. We put our own expectations on others. 
  • It’s challenging to look inward at ourselves to a place where we can connect and resonate with others pain and experiences. We are not always willing to do it.  

 

Building bridges

So, how can we increase our connection to build bridges and “meet people where they are?”

  • Self-connection: Be aware of your own stories and emotions toward the situation. Clarify your own intentions. How is this situation making me feel? What is the story I am telling myself? How would I like to help others? What would make me feel proud, despite the results?
  • Acceptance: Whatever it is, is enough. Let go of any expectations of how things should be or how people should react. We are all in our own journey and the time it takes for each of us to process what is happening is the time each of us need.
  • Hold the space for others: Be fully present with your energy, intention, and attention. Create a safe space for people to share their own stories, without fear of negative consequences. Let people know you are in this together.
  • See people with kind eyes: Tap into your empathy and compassion. We are all doing our best to deal with our own challenges. Its ok to feel whatever each of us is feeling. Be at their serviceassume good intent, and seek to understand others’ perspectives and beliefs with genuine curiosity.
  • Help people get unstuck: The way we see the problem is the problemChallenge peoples beliefs by offering alternative perspectives and support them in creating new possibilities for their business, their relationships, and their lives.
  • Invite people to move forward: Create a compelling and inspiring vision for people to join you and reduce the exit barriers for people wanting to leave.
  • Be the change you want to see in the world: Lead your team by example by demonstrating the standards (behaviors) you would like to see in others.

 
Reaching out and offering our helping hands with the sole intention of supporting each other is the way we, at Axialent, choose to respond.
 
“Just Say No: How Your Meeting Habit Is Harming You” Forbes.com, 8 August 2013
“Empathy Often Avoided Because of Mental Effort” apa.org, 22 April 2019