How to Lead by Example Amidst a Pandemic

Hold a light up for your team and illuminate your path as well

How. Did. This. Happen? 

It’s surreal and seismic – one-third of the planet (2.6 billion people) are now at home taking medical precautions. The once unfamiliar term “social distancing” has become commonplace. As I sit in my home office, alone, I recently found myself blinking to ensure this was all real.

With not even a “brace for impact,” the workforce has been displaced, almost instantaneously, from the storefront office to working remotely from home. It’s a case of closing the barn door after all the horses have sprinted out. There was no HR plan.

As shell-shocked organizations begin to wade through, they are realizing not all employees feel that working from home is a perk. It can be emotionally exhausting. The kitchen table desk, technology hic-ups and losing patience with the children come to mind. 

Working from home, employees can also feel cut-off. The camaraderie and connectedness gone, the common humanity we recently took for granted now lacking. Disembodied virtual interactions can carry a sense of disconnectedness and give rise to reduced motivation and disengagement. Final score…relationship quality down, feelings of isolation up. 

To counter these pain-points, leaders will do well to acknowledge the stress, distress and trauma that has now invaded many of their employees’ personal and professional worlds. 

This, however, is easier said than done. It is daunting to lead when things are unclear and when fears are exacerbated via media hype and COVID-19 forecasting.

This pandemic puts leaders in a fish bowl. Employees are watching, waiting, wanting. Leaders often judge themselves on their intentions but employees judge on actions and will remember how their leader acted during this crisis. As such, I offer seven actionable tips for how to lead by example through this pandemic:

1.     Micro-manage employees’ energy, not their projects. Fear grows in darkness; hold up a light for your team. In doing so, don’t forget the encouragement loop – it’s now more important than ever to tell your employees “I value you.” Build an architecture of reassurance by ensuring your employees feel cared for. For example, if you can reliably do so, reassure that their job is secure. Seek out a real human moment by sticking to small talk. Resist insincere pollyanna but do speak of inspiring platitudes – “we will rebuild if necessary, we will be stronger.” 

2.     There’s power in restraint. Supervision of employees still has a rightful place – especially if addressing statutory obligations, egregious behavior or matters of safety – but be alive that progressive discipline strategies should be last resort. While not an excuse for employee misconduct, a pandemic calls for understanding, compassion and supportive redirection. During a time when governments are needing to “manage” the populace down to when they leave their own homes, leaders must be mindful that their power does not come from control; it comes from character. 

3.     Maintain your mental fitness. Avoid unnecessary exposure to media, especially opinion-based models designed to stimulate a heightened response. Disturbing and unsettling content can contribute to a stress response in a person’s nervous system. Repeated digestion of stressful material can result in feeling blue, worried and irritable. Your team needs you to manage your wellness and be predictively calm. A leader who can stay cool under pressure is an anchor; it will have a trickle-down effect on your weary team. 

4.     Participate in enjoyable activities. Give your leadership brain, body and emotions a break from the current “new normal.” Find a yoga routine online, listen to your favourite music, enjoy an uplifting podcast or take time to use grounding techniques to calm the nervous system. During difficult periods, leaders often feel that they should avoid pleasurable activities because others are suffering. However, avoiding joy and moments of peace can result in reduced resilience. And, don’t forget to share your successes in this regard – your team will live what they learn.

5.     Stick to your routine. While it is tempting to disrupt morning routines because there is no commute or give up exercise because the gym is closed, choosing to maintain a routine is settling during unsettling times. Keeping one’s life as predictable as possible when the external world is less than can be grounding. Moreover, unplug at the end of the day – work-family balance is crucial when working from home. Model a healthy and practical work ethic. Your team will follow and admire you for it. 

6.     Engage remotely with supportive friends and family. Leaders currently have the weight of the world. Chose to circumvent needless pessimism and negativity, as this often produces levels of distress, worry and an unhealthy disconnection. Become a realistic encourager. Foster hope by unearthing positivity and humour. Pass those goodies along to your team, who will listen and smile. 

7.     Distressful Event Response. In 2019 we meticulously developed a unique service – Distressful Event Response – to aid leaders to maintain team and organizational equilibrium during and post crisis. Led by 360’s specialized psychologist, the principles of psychological first-aid and other response modalities are utilized to calm, nourish and renew confidence in disrupted systems. If you need a helping hand, we will guide you every step of the way.

Warren Postlewaite360 Workplace Solution’s CEO, is an accomplished workplace investigator and leader in the areas of organizational values, misconduct and harassment. The 360 team is comprised of experienced investigators, lawyers, policy developers, trainers, mediators and a specialized psychologist who all believe in our mantra “Better Lives at Work.”