Leading During a Pandemic: Discomfort as a Virtue

Taking a hard line on reopening your office and setting ambitious productivity goals doesn't project strength right now. Patience, and small wins, can be a balm for stressed staffers.

Good leadership is supposed to be decisive, but we’re in a moment that makes decisiveness a particular challenge. Associations are eager to get their meetings and events back on track and bring staffers back to the office. But COVID-19’s persistence—I’m in Arizona, where documented cases and hospitalizations are still on the rise—makes it hard to identify a start date. And protests around racial justice in America ought to be prompting leaders to think about how they best serve all their employees and members.

It’s an uncomfortable time, but the best thing a leader can do right now is own that discomfort.

Last week, neuropsychologist Dr. Julia DiGangi wrote in the Harvard Business Review about a firm that made the mistake of taking a hard line with remote workers: Anxious to make sure that productivity still kept pace, it asked workers to sign contracts saying their homes would be free of distractions. As they say, good luck with that.

“Not only is this request absurd for the millions of people who continue to have ‘coworkers’ in school and in diapers, but it disrupts team cohesion by implicitly communicating that employees cannot be trusted to manage the complexities of their own jobs and lives,” she writes.

That’s an extreme case, of course. The executives I’ve spoken with since late March for this blog series on COVID-19 have committed to supporting their staffs without laying down the law in such a needlessly rigid way. But the moment might still demand more vulnerability out of leaders than they’ve been used to. “Vulnerability” isn’t the opposite of decisiveness right now. It’s a way of signaling support for those you lead—even, DiGangi writes, “the pragmatic thing to do.”

Whatever capacity you’ve developed for emotional intelligence, you’ll likely need more of it.

Good remote leadership is rooted in this kind of openness and flexibility. In 2016, I wrote about the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, an association with an entirely remote staff, back when such a concept was quirky enough in itself to write about. After cluing me in to matters of managing Zoom meetings around different time zones and such like, then-executive director Robert Rich, CAE, explained that leading remote staff requires a different temperament from leaders.

“One of the big things I’ve had to change is to think more about where people are at, and to make sure I find out,” he said. “Where are they in terms of how much of a workload they feel they have? How do they feel about their deadlines? How do they feel about the projects they’re working on?”

Call it “management by Zooming around”—whatever capacity you’ve developed for emotional intelligence, you’ll likely need more of it, and need to develop the skills to better express it. My colleague Rasheeda Childress wrote last week about some of the ways leaders can encourage and support their newly remote employees, sustaining productivity without being high pressure about it.

But beyond making sure you’re there for your employees on a day-to-day basis, leaders might also think about what expectations they need to set for their organizations. This is definitely a time to experiment and test out new ideas when you can, but don’t get caught up in the notion that you need to accomplish a moonshot. Fast Company cofounder Bill Taylor recently wrote in HBR about the virtue of setting smaller goals right now, not just because it eases stress on staff but because it clears a path for bigger things, building confidence in the process. “Amidst this big crisis, leaders should give themselves permission to focus on the power of small wins.”

This is an uncertain time. Last month, one tracking survey from McKinley Advisors suggested that a plurality of associations were ready to open their offices in June. Last week, an ASAE Research Foundation survey showed that July is looking more likely, and many are holding off till the fall.

Don’t take the data as a guide for when to open your doors; take it as a reminder that you can’t know everything. In the meantime, you can know your people a little better, and set goals for them that are meaningful and doable until more things become certain.

(AlSimonov/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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