Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager for HR Organization and Professional Development.
As we contemplate a gradual return to work and the return of students in the fall, there is much to consider. New processes, new protocols and new challenges all impact our culture and how we move forward together in that transition. In times of change, leaders set the tone and their behavior conveys messages, intentional or not, about the importance of decisions made, and our values as an institution. This is considerable pressure, given that the same leaders are also dealing with the change themselves. Navigating this terrain isn’t easy, but as the title of this Harvard Business Review article suggests, Like it or Not, You Are Always Leading by Example. The article asks leaders to consider: what things do you consciously model, emphasize and communicate, and why? Does it have an impact on behavior? What influences what you choose to emphasize (your boss, values, etc.)?
Here are some strategies to consider as you pave the way.
- Model Self-Certainty Amidst Uncertainty: Changes occur daily, and the current situation leaves little that is predictable, which can leave many feeling considerable anxiety. Self-certainty isn’t being a “know it all”, rather it means to be grounded in values and confident in your ability to work together with others to find solutions no matter what the future holds. This helps to reduce anxiety and lead to better problem-solving. Leaders are encouraged to reflect on the tone they are setting. The Forbes article Leading Through Uncertainty: Six Ways to Navigate the Unchartered notes, “think of yourself as an emotional barometer, setting the emotional temperature for those in your charge, giving them cues for how they should respond.”
- Model Empathy and Compassion: This may not come easily to all (even if they feel empathy and compassion) but modeling it at this time is critical. As outlined in the Yale Insights article Leading Through COVID: Manage Your Team with Empathy, “people who are scared are not going to be productive or move in any kind of cohesive direction. The human thing, the kind thing, is to start every conversation with the simple question: ‘How are you? I just want to check in on you.’ Right now, showing empathy is the most important thing you can do for productivity, performance, innovation, retention—for any meaningful outcome.” Also remember, you are setting an example for your team, encouraging them to do the same for each other.
- Model a Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI): If you say DEI is important to you but laugh along or ignore microaggressions (or macroaggressions), people learn a lesson about your priorities and sincerity. Do you honor preferred pronouns? Have you educated yourself about the experiences of marginalized communities? Are you considering that COVID-19 has impacted people differently depending on a multitude of factors? Note that pretending that the DEI issues don’t exist or impact our colleagues, students, and the communities we serve also sends a message about who you are and what you represent; and remember, as an MSU leader you are a representative of the organization.
The organization also has a responsibility to back up that individual leader in their efforts to address these issues, which speaks to the values and courage of both the person and the organization’s practices and policies. Do both help to create an inclusive, equitable space for all people to thrive? These actions need to be thoughtful and intentional if we have any chance of having an engaged, inclusive workplace. The Forbes article, 5 Reasons Why Diversity and Inclusion Efforts Fail, states that a leader’s efforts must go beyond the organization’s “needs for compliance and start working to gain that respect by actually recognizing and listening to the people whose respect you want to earn and unique differences you desire to value.” Leaders not only have a responsibility for their individual behaviors but also to push for policy and process changes that align with the stated values of the organization. It doesn’t happen without the concerted, prioritized actions of individuals over time.
- Model Accountability: Doing what you say you’ll do, and what you say is important, will impact how much people listen and follow through. If you say that you expect others to speak up and address issues, but you tend to avoid conversations that are difficult, you likely won’t have credibility. If you announce that everyone is required to wear a mask in public spaces but fail to clearly address it when people don’t comply, the bar will be lowered and safety potentially at risk. For help in having these conversations in a productive way, check out these brief videos from Vital Smarts.
- Model Self-Care: We’ve all heard about the importance of taking breaks, getting exercise, connecting with others and refraining from working around the clock. The extent to which leaders demonstrate self-care skills impacts their team members. Even if you don’t expect your team to work beyond their stated hours, if you are sending emails in the middle of the night you have set an example that they may wonder if they need to follow. According to Gallup, “when a manager is thriving in well-being, their direct reports are 15% more likely to be thriving in well-being six months later… managers don’t need to become triathletes to demonstrate their commitment to physical well-being. Rather, managers should authentically display and share their personal well-being practices – providing verbal and non-verbal examples of well-being in action.” Encourage your team to practice good self-care, let them know why it’s important, and demonstrate the same.
Leaders cast a big shadow, impacting organizational practices, policies, and culture. In these volatile times, it is particularly important to go beyond the ideas of theoretical leadership notions and intentionally assure that your actions are having the intended impact. Find others who will provide you with honest feedback and make a plan to commit to your own learning journey across time. It requires considerable work, but it is incredibly gratifying to see the difference that effort can make.
Bock, L. (2020, May 12). Leading through COVID: Manage Your Team with Empathy. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/leading-through-covid-manage-your-team-with-empathy
Grenny, J. (n.d.). How Do I Say That | Crucial Skills by VitalSmarts. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.vitalsmarts.com/crucialskills/category/how-do-i-say-that/?from-minicourse-page
Llopis, G. (2017, March 29). 5 Reasons Diversity And Inclusion Fails. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2017/01/16/5-reasons-diversity-and-inclusion-fails/
Nelson, J. (2020, June 12). The Manager’s Role in Employee Well-Being. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236249/manager-role-employee.aspx
Schrage, M. (2017, April 21). Like It or Not, You Are Always Leading by Example. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2016/10/like-it-or-not-you-are-always-leading-by-example
Warrell, M. (2020, April 09). Leading Through Uncertainty: Six Ways To Navigate The Unchartered. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2020/03/08/leading-through-coronavirus-how-those-in-charge-can-navigate-the-uncertainty-with-calm–courage/