Performance under pressure demands composure against the biological and emotional reactions that can lead to an erosion of trust. If people are unclear about who and where they are, not controlling where they put their focus, or how their stress accumulate.s one small step at a time, problems arise. Big problems for individuals and business.
My interest is performance under scrutiny and pressure and how the impact of stress, the internal and external demands, require a solution that simplifies a very complex subject. Understanding the psychology of unique people, through capturing insights that can be applied in action.
If you look at the military acronym, VUCA, now widely used in business today, we remain in a period that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and full of Ambiguity.
High performance is not easy but being disconnected in relationships when the heat is turned up is not an option.
The need for trusted, consistent leaders, to lead in renewal has never been greater. I drafted this article in May and have since interviewed a number of multi-disciplinary leaders who have contributed context.
Furlough – the hidden word until 2020
Were you furloughed, or retained as colleagues were furloughed? Are you the Director of a company that had some tough decisions to make?
Are you comfortable with how you lived up to your values, or did you have to bend a bit to tow the company line? Did you quit, at odds with decisions that were made? We are all different.
An employee furlough is defined as a mandatory suspension from work without pay. I had never heard the word furlough before COVID-19. The economic challenges prompted a Government scheme to assist company sustainability and workforce retention at scale:
1. The Government pays 80% of retained employee salary.
2. The business, whether cash rich or not, can elect to top up the extra 20%. Optional.
From an outsider looking in, it required some careful and appreciative negotiation, but on the surface, this solution appeared reasonable, helpful and viable.
Where this all comes under real scrutiny is around the intent. The balance between commercial and people-driven decision making. If culture, employee engagement, and wellbeing were company-led values before lock down, then these would more likely be transferred into a new, virtual environment.
But crises are a leveler. Suddenly, from nowhere, the norm for everyone has changed. We are starting to appreciate the challenge ahead for what happens when the scheme ends. This is complex and not a debate I want to enter into here, but to emphasise how intent polarises opinion.
Picking up on some positive sentiment, I was encouraged by a sense of growth in community. A coming together. I read plenty about the opportunity for revision. There’s reflection on who we were being before and a look ahead to who we want to be.
This article is focused on something else. As leaders, who are we being today and for who? Do we have the capacity, capability and character required in a crisis to be present for the people in our teams?
Lock down is an unnatural state. It is disconnection by design, but many companies will remain in a more virtual state of operation now, based on how cost-efficient it is. Some will revert to things as they were before.
People are more unsettled, scared, and anxious than before. In the modern workplace these symptoms are already present and growing in parallel to a disengaged workforce. This presents a huge performance challenge for organisations and management globally.
In the context of virtual performance, it has the potential to undermine previously built trust. For loyal servants, the previously unthinkable option of changing companies has become a reality. It presents new mental health challenges.
If we look through the Johari Window (Luft and Ingham 1955), the UNKNOWN, the PRIVATE and the BLIND SPOT just got bigger. The PUBLIC stuff is, well, public.
Pressure comes in many forms and more than ever, what you do, did, achieved, or are renowned for, is of little consequence. When people are unsettled, fearful, distracted and more comfortable with the way it was, the factor that counts most is how much you care. Right here. Right now.
- Company informs employee: “We have taken the difficult decision to furlough several staff and your position has been furloughed. Effective immediately, we will/will not continue to pay 20% of your salary.”
- The employee now has events that can be acted on. The facts. Including how the message was delivered and who delivered the message.
Staff Response (Feelings/Thoughts/Wants):
If you experienced this, what was your reaction? How did you feel? What thoughts came to mind? What do you want to do? Who listened? How do you feel now?
Without warning, those chosen to lead through lock down during one of the great economic and communication challenges of any generation, are being tested.
Virtual leadership under extraordinary levels of uncertainty demands a high level of care from leaders. If this opportunity was missed, or as virtual management is to be retained, how do we improve engagement, reduce stress, and prepare the team to be in better shape than when they took leave?
The CALM Performance Model
The constant tension between our motivation (what we want to do and who we want to be) and the demands and fears that stand in our way, determines our ability to simultaneously manage stress and increase productivity.
CALM performance relates to the ability to function with clarity, maturity, decisiveness, and begins with self-awareness. It means optimum connection to the people you interact with and influence. It relates to understanding and managing yourself first, to lead others.
This is easier said than done. The greater the pressure, or stress, the greater the challenge of emotional control.
1 Address their need to feel Safe and Secure
Self-Isolation, social distancing and forced change put working conditions under increased stress. This can be unpleasant and unproductive. Worse can be the impact on health and wellbeing.
For example, if for some who are driven by connection, or contribution, it can surface our fear of being rejected, or not being included.
There are some things we cannot control here, and the facts need to be acknowledged and accepted.
Where self-awareness becomes vital is knowing that your own perspective may not be shared and how you react and respond to the situation is your responsibility. As a leader, the adaptation is with you.
One of the hard lessons I have learned is that my appetite and enthusiasm for risk can put too high a demand on those who do not feel ready to leave their safety in numbers. I call it distrust by design.
It may be natural for you to experience the current crises as challenge, an adventure, or an opportunity for significance, but at what cost? Many people won’t share your views, motivators, and appetite. Consider profiling as a means of understanding how the changes are impacting you, and your people.
To simplify this to be action oriented is to reflect on, and bring to the surface, your preferred level of connection and contribution, even if they are not your go-to style. Right now, it’s about their concerns for safety and security. To succeed you need to understand both, and quickly.
2 Acknowledge Their need to feel Valued and Respected
At work we are bombarded with information that validates our value. Customers, colleagues, bosses, all contributing through various forms of communication.
If our leaders do not consistently affirm our value, that what we do has meaning, we can quickly lose the energy we need to perform at our best. We may start to doubt whether our leaders care about us, or our work.
Footballers can handle being left out of the starting eleven for an important game if they know their value and feel respected. They can easily feel unwanted, or under greater threat, without clarity, context, and clear communication.
Back in the workplace, without the unscheduled meetups in the lunchroom, or the walk to the car park, the social opportunity for positive reinforcement is reduced. We have lost connection. These needs are different for everyone.
While technology goes someway to addressing this in practice, it is only one piece of the business management system. Likewise the sharp public brand, the company values on the website, the ‘feel good’ benefits and even the salary mean nothing if employees do not feel valued and respected.
To simplify this into action is to accept how your preferred style is suited to the context of the environment your team finds itself in, and in preparing for the dialogue you are about to have with each individual.
Under business as usual, managers who had a ‘my way’ approach will already be leading, at best, a partially engaged team and now leaders are being asked to adapt differently. For many this will be a big shift, but it is a small personal price to pay and a differentiator in growing meaningful connection.
3 Two-way communication done well is Informed and Understood
In times of change, or stress, under-communication destroys harmony. “What is on your mind?” would be a great place to start. Everyone is being forced to work differently and the potential for new tension is worth understanding.
If curiosity about others is not your style, you still have capacity for curiosity. It just doesn’t show up as naturally as other traits. The mistake would be to lack any self-awareness of this and make it all about you.
Without information people try to make sense of what they don’t know, and this often creates negative and opinion-based truths that rarely match the facts. It’s why two people have very different recollections of the same event.
Uncertainty breeds anxiety and fear. Without addressing it equates to conscious disengagement. I rarely approach things with a right/wrong mindset, but if I know that what I’m doing could be better, but I’m doing it my way anyway, then i have to accept this is the wrong approach. This is my responsibility.
While we might think it is possible to over communicate, it is rarely the case. This is not about creating more zoom meetings for meetings sake. It’s giving people time to be heard. Meaningful dialogue that demonstrates everyone’s views and feelings are being listened to. Respect by design.
We are in uncharted territory, experiencing the greatest levels of workplace uncertainty of our generation. People are under pressure, more disconnected than ever with a negative impact on performance and health.
Leading under pressure is complex so a simple framework that helps us manage our own responses under stress works.
CALM leadership is about managing your state, to be a trusted, consistent presence, who builds courageous individuals and stronger teams. A framework keeps you focused on what is important.
The VIRUS acronym (Value, Informed, Respected, Understood, Secure) may help to validate what the staff are feeling in their context, by allowing others to react in their own way, without judgement.
What is on your mind? This is a great question to ask to create a safe and vulnerable space that creates understanding and opportunity to appreciate the state and the demands they are under. This question alone will help build trust.
When we understand what concerns they have and how they view themselves we can begin to identify what they want. As trust builds so will the confidence, satisfaction, productivity, and collaboration.
Employees want leaders who truly care for them. Who are you being today that shows people you are watching out for them?
Stay safe everyone. Oh, and keep CALM.
If you want to understand how your organisational culture has been impacted by COVID-19, or you want to assess your teams in context for optimal performance, either remotely or safely on-site, get in touch.
Credit Smith, S., (2003). Connecting People: Improving Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration (an Action Research Study on the Role of Trust in International Autonomous Work Groups). Doctoral Thesis. Southern Cross University: Lismore.
Thanks to Perry Timms, Greg Ferrari, Elgar Finlay, Abhijit Neri, Siri Narasimham, Gerry Steinhauer for taking the time to chat about leadership and team challenges.