Under any circumstances how people perceive they are being treated by their employers either creates greater or lesser trust. The coronavirus pandemic naturally stirs up and may drastically heighten whatever level of trust is part of an existing workplace environment — depending on what the leaders do. A lot has been made of ensuring adequate communication and maintaining the flow of tasks and sense of connection as people are sent home to work. But the issues of trust are deeper and potentially have more impact on productivity than those solely related to the ongoing organization and control of work and managing remote workers — if only because contagious disease is so stressful, unpredictable and personal. And we can’t forget that this is generally a time of mistrust, in government, society and nature, too. It’s easy to believe things are hanging by a thread, that full-on catastrophe is nearly upon us.
There are many, many questions and situations arising, some legal or ethical, some about the raw fairness of policies, some driven by realistic or unrealistic fears and the nature of organizational ambiguity. No one could possibly know all the answers but it’s clear that employers that aren’t consciously working to allay peoples’ fears, answer their questions and deal with the complexity humanly and sensitively will suffer. It isn’t just a matter of hiring good lawyers or kicking HR staff into gear or making hypocritical promises. People will remember for a long time how they felt their organizational leaders treated people in the face of chaos and mayhem created by and reflected by the pandemic.
Some staff concerns will naturally have to do with all the protocols of working from home. Others, probably more volatile, are the ones related to what’s happening with those who are staying at the office or plant. For example, what guidance has been provided to first and second level leaders about:
• the favorite staff member who shows up at work with what seems to be a minor cold, downplays the sneezes and coughs, and doesn’t want to go home?
• the other staff members who complain about the co-worker who comes to work with that minor cold?
• the staff member who wants to move to a different location because her station is right next to a doorway where potentially contagious patrons are entering the building?
• the supervisor who personally stays home to work but says employees need to be at their desks?
• the supervisor who is waiting for guidance about what to do with such issues and asks everyone to also constantly wait for word from “higher-ups”?
• the staff members who appear to be perfectly healthy but want to work from home?
• and on and on….
I’m sure you have heard many other quandaries.
The point is that the nature of a pandemic and the broad protections such as social distancing being put into place have strong emotional content that interacts with whatever level of trust or mistrust is already present in a workplace. If the leaders are generally trusted to begin with, even if they make some mistakes, even if not every part of their action plan is perfect, people are likely to hang in and maybe even increase their level of engagement. But if the leaders are not trusted or only partly trusted, if they appear uninvolved or suspiciously self-protective, staff may very well feel greater personal and group anxiety and stress. They may be more judgmental and critical of the leaders. The rumor mill may be operating, as they say, “at fever pitch” about all manner of issues including but extending beyond the pandemic. They may have a harder time concentrating. There may be more mistakes…by everyone. Such is the nature of panic, whether low or high key. The less incipient historical trust in the organization and its leaders, the more likely people will feel threatened — threatened potentially on many levels.
Neuroleadership expert, David Rock, has previously characterized these threats via his “SCARF model,” work perfectly summarized by Ed Batista. SCARF refers to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness, all core concerns of how people think about their fundamental safety. Does whatever is happening enhance or jeopardize my sense of my own stature, my sense of predictability, my sense of being within my control and knowledge, my circle of known relationships, my sense of fairness? Thinking of each of these factors in turn, it’s clear how deeply the coronavirus could quickly upset any and all of them because what coronavirus essentially represents is loss.
Given that leaders have been thrown into this unstable situation, what should they — what should you — do? If you want to not only maintain trust, but even see the current moment as an opportunity to actively build trust (because trust is needed more than ever right now), what actions will most help you and your organization?
Well, one could write books about such times because there are so many layers to understand and respond to, and surely some will be written.
The short answer is that trust is deeply connected to people feeling they are cared about — personally — in the midst of the mess. When meaningful personal attention and care are unavailable, that is exactly when mistrust fills the void. So along with all those other essential attributes of leadership under pressure, such as determination, persistence and calm (again, said perfectly by Ed Batista), I would add there is giving others the gift of your time to inquire, to support, and offer your best wisdom about how we get through this together. In practice this means that you divide your time between team collaborations about the work and team health*, and one-on-one, more personal exchanges, however they might be conducted by phone or over Zoom. I don’t believe a leader can know how their team is doing unless that leader knows how each person independently — and inter-dependently — is doing.
You may be perfectly correct in saying, “But I don’t have time…” for all those conversations — “I’m slammed” — and that may be totally true. However, it will also define for others whether you actually practice as a leader, or are just a well-intended manager or colleague. Effective leaders know how to build each unique personal connection, and it is through this connection that psychological safety either comes or does not. If it comes, trust can be built. Effective leaders know when someone, anyone on their team is hurting, because they notice when a person feels threatened or upset, is angry or beat up or grieving. They do their level best to make time and to let the person voice their individual concerns and cares, and to respond directly and completely, thoroughly to those cares. Even if this is to say, “there’s no answer right now to what you are asking.” It isn’t just those words, of course, that make any difference — it’s who is saying them and how. In this sense, coronavirus isn’t different as a trust-based leadership challenge — it’s just a more intense form of what’s been there all along in your relationships with others.
When you come down to it, it’s about who you are, what kind of leader you are and aspire to be, who you feel you want and need to be in a time of crisis, and to think for yourself about that, not just take the word of others that you should be “tougher” or “softer,” more or less decisive, more less compassionate. “Who you are” means there’s still a part of you that is willing to step away from the mayhem, calming your own fears of loss in order to learn as much as you can about what you are facing, and what in the midst of all the craziness you are all about for the people who depend on you.
* Here’s an excellent piece by Chris Weston and shared by Euan Semple called the “Remote Work Survival Kit.”