Fostering Workforce Resilience through Leadership

A number of organizations lost staff at various points during the pandemic of 2020. And no, I’m not referring to staff that were laid off because of the difficult financial challenges many businesses encountered during the course of that year. I’m referring to staff that left businesses for various reasons. Associated factors are diverse but for the most part and by my understanding, staff that walked away did so in reaction to leadership deficiencies within these organizations; deficiencies that became more apparent on account of the complexities that came with the period.

For some it was a case where management failed to adjust or modify its rigid posture with respect to style of work. These organizations stuck vehemently to the concept of physical workplace, discountenancing the options of telework or remote work even where the health and wellbeing of their workforce were clearly at stake.

It is disconcerting to find that many employers within the Nigerian space still believe – erroneously, that their workforce will remain on board at all cost simply because the labor environment is predominantly an ‘employer’s market’. The truth however is that times are changing and the fact that employers are not reading the handwriting on the wall remain a source of wonder for me.

With increasing options of gig work quickly changing the meaning of what it means to be a worker, organizations will do well to pay attention to the dictates of the changing employment landscape.

The benefits of remote work as a phenomenon that’s been heightened by the pandemic has been researched extensively by many consulting entities. As it stands and especially because of the pros for many employees, nearly 30% of working professionals said they would quit if they had to return to office after the pandemic. This comes from an online survey of 1,022 professionals conducted by LiveCareer, an online resume and job search consulting service in the USA.

In a crisis situation especially, I believe that the resilience of an organization, has deep connections with the psychological resilience of the workforce. It is easy to imagine therefore how leadership’s rigid postures and behaviors described earlier could pass for a lack of empathy and thus a bad dent in the psychological expectations of the workforce. When combined with the stress that comes with a pandemic this indeed is a recipe for disaster. To be sure, there are many reasons why these kind of fixed management postures will not suffice going forward.

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Clearly, the past decade or so has been characterized by increased complexities and ambiguities. This situation clearly aggravated by the pandemic has had workforce within organizations dealing with barrage of emotional and mental difficulties arising from intense confusion, fear of job loss, change to work styles, home schooling scenarios, the race to meet targets and overturn damage to business, anxieties surrounding the COVID-19 itself and immense stress induced by all of these factors. It’s a lot!

For any leadership to therefore discountenance all of these and carry on as though nothing is amiss is akin to ignoring the ginormous elephant in the room. The truth is that the sustainability of organizations post COVID-19 is hinged largely on human motivation and psychological resilience and not solely on business recovery and continuity strategies.  And here is where strong leadership becomes highly critical.

Leadership is a big deal but leadership during a disruption is an even bigger deal. This is a major premise for all the conversations ongoing today on ‘Leadership during crisis’.

But how do leaders display ‘appropriate behaviors’ in a pandemic where they themselves are grappling with the psychological, emotional and economic complexities that comes with such abrupt disruption of work, worker and workplace?

Well, the reality is that leadership requires deep seated capabilities, a quest that in many instances require commitment and time to develop. Evidently, this is the reason why discerning organizations expose their prospective leaders to leadership capacity building programs way before they have a chance to step into leadership roles.

Clearly, one of the biggest need of the hour is the need for leaders to show more of their humanity and empathy. I mean, imagine a scenario where an employee has lost multiple relatives to the pandemic!

Perhaps we’re asking too much of leaders? Maybe. But frankly leading can be a tough job. To make substantive impact, I believe it is important for organizations to first effect a proper appraisal of mitigating factors and then devise a plan around particular requirements of leaders for the workforce – within the organizational context. Pray, when the pandemic crisis is all over, it will remain foremost in mind the supporting roles [or otherwise] that leadership played in providing support [or otherwise] while it lasted. A positive overall experience can be that critical fuel that energizes a workforce and on which they run on – psychologically in forging ahead toward business recovery and progress.

It is important to point out that unlike in scenarios where top leadership focus on the building of capabilities only across selected leadership cadres within the organization, in times of crisis, it is important that the modeling of humaneness happen from the top echelons of the organization. Indeed, the impact of this can be deeply empowering for the entire organization.

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Steve Collis, CEO of AmerisourceBergen supports this premise. In a Mckinsey article he said: “One of the smartest things that we did the very first week was to set up a daily executive-management meeting at 5:00 p.m. That’s important from a decision-making point of view, but it’s even more important for touching base and showing empathy…. I asked all my direct reports, ‘Is there someone who wants me to reach out to someone who’s doing a great job or someone who’s struggling? Maybe someone who has a relative with COVID-19?’ Sometimes all that’s needed is a word of encouragement to show you care. It’s been a great gift to be able to do that for the people in AmerisourceBergen.”

In a nut shell and reiterating, building workforce resilience in pushing through tough times hinges largely on the investment leadership is willing to make in fulfilling the psychological contract. And to be sure, many organizations are doing what they can, expanding the scope of their welfare programs etc. However, beyond all these along with focusing on and demonstrating empathy and/or humanness, it is important to state that there are other critical behaviors which leaders must demonstrate and which go a long way in building resilience in any workforce. In this regard and at this juncture, let me share a few tips that I believe will help leaders make a difference in these times:

  1. Get help: It’s easy for leaders to get overwhelmed when they themselves are trying to navigate complexities and are leading in uncertain times. But thinking outside of the box vis-à-vis achieving their support goals will prove very vital. For example, with respect to making quick wins, leaders could identify leaders within the organizational with relevant soft-skills and push them forward allowing them to quickly bridge existing critical gaps. 
  • Modify your Communication: It is important for leadership to mind how it frames business challenges so as not to further aggravate an already volatile situation. Does this imply that leaders should sugar-coat and hold back vital info on business challenges? Not at all. Adaptable tendencies are easily projected through words and how business leaders frame business challenge is a strong indication of the resilience that they possess and which can be readily transferred to the workforce. Attaining this kind of communication requires a set of techniques but it can be learnt.

  • Grow and Project Adaptable Tendencies: Beyond the need to effectively frame current business challenges is the need for leadership to project Adaptable behaviors. I believe that more than anything, this capability is one critical confidence booster of the possibilities that the future holds for the organization. There are cogent reasons why competences as critical thinking, creativity and innovation are vital for thriving in a disruptive era. Another major capability comes largely from being able to grow adaptable mind-sets. It is easy to see how all of these connect with the building of much needed psychological resilience for these times.
  • Change Perspective: Leaders can modify their perspectives with respect to focusing on leveraging the needs of the hour to galvanize workforce support for the uncertainties that lie ahead: Paul Tufano, CEO of AmeriHealth Caritas seemed to project this essence when he said: “This has been a sustained period of uncertainty and fear, but also a great opportunity to forge a stronger, more cohesive and motivated workforce. If CEOs can step into a ministerial role—extending hands virtually, truly listening, relating to and connecting with people where they are—there is enormous potential to inspire people and strengthen bonds and loyalties within the company.”
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