By Tracey Swanepoel

During the emotionally charged and uncertain time of Covid-19 I’ve had more conversations about emotions with leaders than ever before. I guess trying to survive a deadly pandemic brings emotions bubbling to the surface. What an amazing opportunity for leaders: to acknowledge that people may be frightened, uncertain, exhausted. To empathise with those feelings and to lead using emotions.

How do leaders do this? By understanding that when people are frightened, they crave kindness. When they are uncertain, they look for reassurance in a plan, and moments of progress towards that plan. And when they are exhausted – they need to be ignited by recognition.

Warren Buffett famously talks about “swimming naked when the tide has gone out” referring to how a crisis lays bare the fault lines underpinning it. Without a doubt, this pandemic has thrown the emotional landscape of the world of work into sharp relief.

Leaders have realised that a large part of their job involves managing their teams’ emotions. Remote working has shone a light on trust and autonomy. Do we trust our people to work when we can’t actually see them working? In this foreign and emotionally charged environment, small “micro” behaviours have a disproportionate impact: how do we show care and concern for our team members as individuals? How do we encourage them? How do we give them hope when it’s in short supply? How do we literally hang in there and hold on when there is very little to hold on to?

The good news is that engagement, as measured by Gallup, actually increased in 2020, a clear sign that as managers showed they cared, employees responded positively. But more recently this has been tempered by some not-so-good news: of the much talked about ‘Great Resignation.’ In developed economies where people have choices, they have voted with their feet and resigned, shunning the rigid rules and practices that undoubtedly serve managers’ and company needs, rather than what employees are longing for: trust, autonomy and flexibility.

In their article Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation, (in MIT Sloan Management Review) the authors make the point that a toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover. Corporate culture, is a suitcase word for the micro behaviours I describe above. The question I believe, is what can we learn about leadership and culture from what went RIGHT during the pandemic?

Tshepo* is the COO of a large refining business. He contacted me during lockdown, and we started having weekly conversations – not about the technicalities of his job, but about his emotional state as a leader of people, and what tools he could use to motivate his team.

We chatted about how difficult it is to give people hope when you yourself just don’t know what’s going to happen next. This is where the concept of progress really comes into its own. Focusing on the small daily wins (no matter how infinitesimal) energises us, gives us hope to fight another day. It fuels our grander ambitions, and it is essential in times of crisis and uncertainty.

We also talked about how people crave care and attention – and how it’s so easy to be permanently fire fighting – inevitably resulting in high rates of burnout. Tshepo recalled the time when the entire business had moved mountains to survive the hard lockdown. This involved hundreds of employees camping on-site, living away from their families for five weeks. A tough ask, but it was literally a do or die situation.

The commitment and excitement were palpable, at first, but as time wore on the novelty wore off. Tempers flared. New operational crises presented themselves. Tshepo agreed to institute something called the Hot Seat at the end of each team meeting. This involved going around the table and each person appreciating and recognising their colleague whose turn it was to sit in the “Hot Seat”.

According to Tshepo, that was a turnaround moment. It started a cascade of recognition from the boardroom to the plant cell house. Suddenly, “thank you” WhatsApp videos were doing the rounds. As a result of this one small change, recognition blossomed, the business was energised, and employees were inspired to go even further to pull miracles out of the bag.

Tshepho and I also talked about vulnerability. The “boss has all the answers” just doesn’t cut it – especially in a pandemic. This crisis, like any, has been a great equaliser – no one has ever been here before. There are no tried and tested answers. It’s a great opportunity for leaders to say, “I don’t know, what do you think?” A courageous move for a leader, and one that really pays off because it unites the team, and creates psychological safety and trust. As one wise leader I work with put it: “If you are real, you don’t always need to be right.”

We should never underestimate the value of showing our own emotions – what I call the “me too” effect. What this pandemic has done is liberate us to be free to talk about how we are feeling, to reveal who we are when we are at home (including the barking dog, screaming child and hubby in pyjamas who periodically creep into our perfectly curated Zoom backgrounds). It has given us the licence to be vulnerable. To be authentic. To be human!

As leaders, it’s up to us to tap into this: crisis or no crisis. Lockdown or “back to normal”. To use it to connect, to deepen relationships, and to truly begin to lead from the heart.