5 Ways to Lead Your Team into the New Normal (That Don't Involve Another Zoom Meeting)

  • May 8, 2020

Let’s face it: this is probably the tenth article you’ve read that discusses what the “new normal” will look like as we (hopefully) move toward a post-COVID world. If you’re like me, you’ve been scanning millions of blogs, thought-piece, and tweets you can find about this “new normal,” looking for some semblance of hope. That said, sometimes all this talk about the new normal makes me want to hide under the desk in my tiny home office.

It’s not that the “old normal” was flawless, but it was familiar. It’s so easy to fall down a spiral of fear when we are standing on the edge of the unknown. Nobody can predict what form the immediate or even long term future may take, but there’s one thing we know for sure: if we’re going to adapt, we’re going to need each other healthy for mutually-assured support and servant leaders who are holding our best interests at heart .

If you’re a leader in your organization, someone with aspirations of leadership, or a fellow blog-reader looking for a scrap of hope, here are 5 key actions your team will need to take when navigating the new normal and emerge stronger, more compassionate, and more thoughtful on the other side.

1. Leaders put people first

Leaders, if they are to be successful in the future, must understand that command-and-control leadership is not only outdated, but that it’s also one of the many factors that exacerbated the failures of properly preparing for a pandemic. In order to take a step towards a successful and progressive new normal in which people are given the tools and resources they need to be healthy, creative, and safe, we have to start with the basics: put people first.

Take a lesson from Ken Blanchard’s Servant Leadership in Action where he astutely claims that if it’s lonely at the top, it means nobody is following you. It’s your job to bring your followers to the top with you. Leadership that puts people first (whether it’s with a servant, humble, positive, inclusive, or transformational leadership style) isn’t just all fuzzy feelings and soft promises, though - it’s backed by  a body of extensive research, scholarship, and leadership and management science. In her revolutionary work Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley confirms that leadership is impossible without relationships with others.

No one can hope to lead any organization by standing outside or ignoring the web of relationships through which all work is accomplished. Leaders are being called to step forward as helpmates, supported by our willingness to have them lead us.

Great leaders connect with people and take their joint role as guide and servant very seriously, especially in times of crisis. If you’re an introvert like me, you might be a little daunted by the idea of connecting with people in this way. Here’s some practical advice: start by asking people how they’re doing and intervene on the perhaps learned impulse to tell them what’s next on their to-do list. Building on the revelatory framework of humble inquiry, Humble Leadership, Ed Schein constructs a framework that encourages personalization and relationships as the most effective way to helm the ship that gets people through a storm and eventually into calmer waters.

2. Recognize that everyone has a role

Not everyone is in a position of “formal” leadership. However, an organization isn’t made up of just executives or the C Suite - it’s made up of people at all levels who are all working towards a common goal. The one thing people at all levels have in common? We all do our best work when we feel empowered. In The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Tim Clark writes about how our best work can be done when humans feel included, safe to learn, contribute to their organization, and challenge the status quo without fear of marginalization or punishment.

How can we encourage people to bring their best selves to work? The Positive Organization by Robert E. Quinn says that it starts with seeing the best in each person and working to bring that potential into reality. That’s how we take another step towards the new normal - by remembering that everyone has an important role to play in shaping an organizational culture that respects the dignity of all people. It’s the key to building the inclusive economy that we all deserve.

Employees that contribute to this kind of culture are invaluable to the evolution of the new normal. That’s why Help Them Grow or Watch them Go authors Bev Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni hammer home the importance of employee development. If you help employees achieve their goals and get them where they want to be professionally, you can create a professional ecosystem that is as beneficial to them as it is to you and the company as a whole.

3. Commit to transparent communication

It’s easier to make informed decisions about the future if we are transparent and share information, experiences, and perspectives with each other.  Striving for better communication is about more than conversations - it’s the very fabric of how we get to know one another, build trust, and strengthen relationships. In Conversations Worth Having, author Cherri Torres speaks on the importance of positive framing, or structuring outcomes in terms of what you do want instead of what you don’t want. For example, a conversation regarding the performance of an employee should revolve around what ideal performance looks like instead of harping on areas where the employee is underperforming. This isn’t to say that constructive criticism isn’t important, though. What matters is centering their well-being and getting to the root of their behavior, which is influenced by their emotional and mental state.

Another form of communication is feedback. In Feedback and Other Dirty Words, Tamra Chandler talks about what feedback actually is and what it isn’t. Use feedback as a constructive tool to help people move toward something new, not as a punishment, weapon, or accusation.

Communication - whether in the form of personal conversations or feedback - can be tough even while equipped with the right tools. These conversations become even more muddy, emotionally-fraught, and difficult when dealing with sensitive subjects like race, gender inequality, politics, or religion. We bring these parts of ourselves to work, and because of this, we can’t ignore the implications of working with people different than ourselves.  In We Can’t Talk About That at Work!, we learn that sometimes the most difficult conversations are the most necessary. Without these tough conversations, we’ll find ourselves succumbing to the same dire divides as before. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the only way we’re going to survive this and emerge stronger is by treating each other with dignity, compassion, and respect. To do this, we need to be willing to talk about what drives us apart so that we can come together.

4. Radically rethink organizational structures

At Berrett-Koehler, we spend a great deal of time thinking about the variety of ways organizations can be structured, like how to upend top-down models, flatten hierarchies, and “going horizontal.”  When I think of “going horizontal,” I think about taking a well-deserved nap. That said, Samantha Slade’s book Going Horizontal offers advice that is as fulfilling than my recommended 20-minute siesta. In the book, Slade talks about how hierarchical workplaces should be a thing of the past because, frankly, humans are hard-wired to self-organize, with little to no inherent need for a “boss.” We don’t necessarily need a hierarchy to be productive as long as we can work out our problems together.

In fact, our ability to reshape team and organizational dynamics is what makes people more valuable than any function that technology can perform - only humans can produce true creativity and connection. Even before we entered this moment of social upheaval, we’d been facing an onslaught of change because of the  job loss due to technology. More teams and organizations have moved online, which means that tech plays an even bigger role than it used to. While there are some industries that rely on manual labor, and we want to give special thanks to the essential workers holding it down for us, we need to radically rethink education with regard to how we all interact with technology. In Humility is the New Smart, Edward Hess talks about how humility is an underutilized tool that can bring us into the collaborative culture that fosters the ideal new normal.                                           

“..humans will need to excel at the kinds of jobs and skills that either complement technology or are those that technology cannot do well—at least not yet. That list includes critical thinking, innovative thinking, creativity, and high emotional engagement with others that fosters relationship building and collaboration.

It is impossible, however, to have this culture of high emotional engagement and relationship building without examining the social systems, and biases, that organize us. Tiffany Jana raises the critical point that as teams move online, greater diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns follow - issues like access to high speed broadband, childcare, and living situation shape the overall organizational culture and development.  In tandem with thinking about how to structure your organization, you have to also examine the biases we’ve all inherited in one way or another, as Erasing Institutional Bias argues. All humans have biases, and if we’re not careful (and sometimes, even if we are), the institutions we build will have roots in these biases that can affect the psychological safety of marginalized and oppressed groups. Understanding how to combat these biases both socially and institutionally is a giant leap towards creating a new normal that has a place for everyone’s perspectives.

5. Decolonize your organization...and then, the world!

Ideally, step 5 is what you get when you follow steps 1-4. The “new normal” in your organization should mirror the traits that you’d like to see in the world. Take a key concept from Edgar Villanueva’s sleeper hit Decolonizing Wealth. If we can use capital to heal the racial wealth gap, use an intersectional lens to build inclusive, anti-racist workplaces, and draw from indigenous wisdom to create better world together guided by distributed leadership, we can instill change at every organizational level.

As a result, as we learn in The Making of a Democratic Economy by Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard, we are left with economic and social norms that benefit the common good instead of the wealthy, privileged few. The decolonization of wealth and creation of a democratic economy requires more elbow-grease than just to help bring marginalized groups up to par with privileged communities. The B Corp Handbook author Ryan Honeyman reflects on his own awakening, and advocates that we must begin by acknowledging the existence of oppressive systems such as white supremacy and examine their negative effects both inside and outside of your organization. The new normal should be, as our company motto states, a world that works for all.

It would be a serious understatement to say that this time is stressful for all of us. However, if we play our cards right, it can be transformative for us and for the organizations we support. If you think creatively and act with purpose, there is no goal that is unreachable.

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