In the fast-paced and uncertain world of 2023, change seems to be accelerating on a global scale. Industries are transitioning, corporations are undergoing restructures, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters has left many grappling with a mix of big emotions and reactions.
In these challenging times, the need for people-focused leadership has never been more important. To steer our teams through the storm successfully, we need to tap into our people skills and lead with more heart and less head.
The recent Gallup State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report paints a concerning picture. It shows 59 per cent of employees worldwide are disengaged. They’re “quiet quitting”, showing minimal productivity and effort, and feeling disconnected from their work.
In Australia, the numbers are even higher, with 67 per cent of employees feeling disengaged. The report also highlights that employee stress levels remain at record highs, with 44 per cent reporting having experienced significant stress on a daily basis. It’s no surprise then that more than half of currently employed workers (51 per cent) are actively seeking new job opportunities.
Interestingly, when asked about the one change they would make to improve their workplace during this challenging time, 41 per cent of respondents said they would improve engagement or culture. This was higher than pay and benefits at 28 per cent and employee wellbeing at 16 per cent.
It’s a clear indication that ensuring people feel valued and appreciated, celebrating successes, recognising contributions, and showing people you care are vital leadership qualities for fostering an engaged workforce when the going gets tough. As the saying goes: people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.
Leadership is about people. Management is about tasks. Leading through change and uncertainty goes beyond simply managing logistics, processes, key performance indicators (KPIs), and tasks. While this “head” stuff is important, it’s the “heart” – the human-centric aspect that needs the most attention, but it’s also the area many leaders tend to neglect. Why is the people bit so important? Because organisations don’t change, people do. We can have all the processes we like, we can mandate a new way of doing something, we can change the organisation chart to reflect a restructure, but true change and engagement will only occur when we get our people on board.
In times of stress, it’s easy to default to a management mindset. Systems and plans are practical, logical and give us a sense of control and comfort in the face of uncertainty. Leadership requires courage. It’s messy because humans are messy, and there’s no one-size-fits-all silver bullet approach.
Leadership during challenging times means dealing with people’s feelings because emotions underpin all human behaviour and drive our choices, decisions, performance and actions. We ignore them at our peril. People drive performance, but if we don’t pay attention to how they feel during uncertain times, they’ll likely drive problems instead. Failing to address the fears and feelings of our teams can result in unproductive behaviour, conflicts, disagreements, distractions, increased stress leave, and even resignations. The cost of ignoring our employees’ emotions can be significant in terms of time, money and productivity.
Dealing with people, their emotions, challenges, behaviours and feelings is hard work. It requires courage, not confidence. Leading people through change takes courageous self-leadership, courageous communication and courageous behaviour. And this courage probably looks different in action from what you’d expect.
It’s not about being bold, brash, commanding and demanding. Rather, it involves balancing warmth with strength, candour with compassion, and consistency with adaptability. It means facing the feelings head-on, being vulnerable, and sitting with the anger and frustration of your people while guiding them towards a better place.
It’s creating a space where people can express, rather than suppress, their emotions. Leading with heart means showing your people that you genuinely care about them and their wellbeing, and making sure your words, tone, body language and actions all convey that. It means taking the time to check in and see how they’re travelling. It’s empathising with the challenges they face, asking meaningful questions and showing a sincere interest in their responses. Ultimately, it requires us to embrace our own humanity and genuinely connect with the humanity of those around us.
As Maya Angelou famously said: “People won’t remember what you say and do, but they will remember how you made them feel.” How we lead through challenge and change will often come to define what people think of our leadership. And when we finally emerge from the storm, what people will remember most is how we made them feel in the midst of it all.
So, let’s embrace the need for more heart in our leadership right now. Let’s prioritise engagement, culture, and the wellbeing of our teams. By leading with more of a people focus, we can create work environments where individuals feel valued, supported and motivated to give their best. Seeing the person first and the task second is not just the right thing to do; it gets us tangible results.
By Leah Mether, author, “Steer Through the Storm: How to Communicate and Lead Courageously Through Change”
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