The COVID 19 Pandemic has, by and large, created adverse circumstances for individuals and businesses. Still, for researchers studying the impact on leaders, it has generated opportunities for insightful, new analysis. We had collected data on over 100,000 leaders before the pandemic. After several months of living in the pandemic, we were able to compare the result of 1,276 leaders who were assessed in the midst of it. The question we asked was, “Which leadership behaviors have become more important and now have a greater impact?”
One of the behaviors that our research indicates is having substantially more impact in the pandemic is a leader’s ability to bring a high level of energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration to others.
The Need for Inspiration
To better understand which leadership behaviors signal that a leader is inspiring today, my colleague Jack Zenger and I looked at 4,206 assessments by direct reports of their leaders in this pandemic. Those leaders who were viewed as the most energized and inspiring were consistently rated more positively on these behaviors. This ability to energize and inspire is relatively easy to identify in others. Still, most leaders are at a loss to know what they can do to develop this attribute within themselves. While it is initially overwhelming to figure out what a person can do to be more inspirational, our research identified specific, practical, and straightforward practices that all add to inspiration.
1. Develops Others. As they headed into the pandemic, many leaders put all developmental activities for their subordinates on hold, but other leaders doubled down. This problematic and stressful time is providing some of the most excellent learning opportunities a person could have in their lifetime. Challenging team members to take on new roles and activities provides them with valuable learning experiences. When leaders discuss with subordinates what is going well and what opportunities exist, discussing new activities as an opportunity for learning and development is a natural path. Knowing which skills and capabilities direct reports want to develop puts leaders in a position to help them learn new skills by selecting the right new job assignments.
A key skill in developing others is providing honest feedback. Our research has consistently shown us the power of abundant positive feedback combined with carefully selected corrective feedback. Demonstrate your commitment for every member of your team to keep working on their plans of development.
2. Gets Others to Embrace Stretch Goals. During the pandemic, much of what we normally do has been stopped. Many people feel helpless and that they are controlled and restrained by their environment. Helping a team identify and embrace a challenging goal and finding a way to achieve it breathes confidence and hope into everyone involved. Being able to exert greater control over their work makes everyone feel energized. Too many leaders have decided to hunker down and wait out the pandemic. They are looking for how to survive, while their team is seeking ways to thrive.
3. Continuously Communicates. Over 80% of organizations have encouraged or required some employees to work remotely. It is estimated that 56% of knowledge workers are now working from home. This remote work strongly impacts communication between leaders and subordinates. Having developed a communication pattern with their subordinates, many leaders have continued what they have done in the past. But that level of communication falls woefully short amid the pandemic. Remote colleagues require a higher level of communication, both in frequency and quality. It is remarkable to realize the amount of information sharing and communication that occurred in office settings by casual contact when walking down the hall or eating in the lunchroom.
4. Is a Role Model. Inspiring leaders know that everyone watches what they do. Few behaviors go unnoticed. Whether it is their promptness in replying to emails, returning phone calls, or finishing a project on time, they know they set the pace. Others generally follow their lead. Because no one is watching, some find it tempting to slack off; but research shows that remote workers spend more time working remotely than when they were in the office. Productivity has not suffered. Leaders are a constant example.
5. Increases Cooperation and Collaboration. Working remotely makes collaboration between groups significantly more difficult. It also increases the potential for conflict. Too many leaders believe that those involved in a conflict will work the problems out on their own, so they refrain from involving themselves. That is a delicate situation, but the most effective leaders in our “pandemic” group were willing to intervene rather quickly.
6. Values Diversity and Inclusion. The most inspiring leaders did an excellent job of valuing differences and diversity. Our research discovered that many leaders believe they are effective at valuing differences, but their direct reports disagree. We suggest every leader starts with the assumption that they probably are not as effective at practicing inclusion as they think they are. Seek out those most apt to feel they are on the outside looking in, rather than on the inside looking out.
7. Keeps Focused on the Vision and Direction. Right now, many of your employees are lost in the forest. They don’t see the destination. Remind them about where the organization is going and how goals will be achieved. This pandemic will end. Life will be better. Business results will pick-up. Recently, one of our clients commented, “I think I have hit the pandemic wall.” We are in a situation like what marathon runner’s experience at the 20-mile mark in a race. They run out of energy and hope. They hit a “wall.” Leaders, ideally, encourage others to have hope and keep running.
8. Balances Obtaining Results with Concern for Individual Needs. Pre-pandemic, we believed the balance was 60% results and 40% individual needs. The desired pandemic balance needs to be 40% results and 60% individual needs. Many employees are anxious, stressed, and unsure about their future. They need a leader who cares about them. We have described this as making an emotional connection. This does not demand taking large chunks of time. It merely requires checking in with people, thanking them for their effort, listening to their concerns, and responding with hope and optimism. That can make a huge difference.
The research is clear! Just doing a few of these eight things can substantially increase a leader’s ability to energize and inspire others. Find the two or three actions that you can take today. Keep track of your successes. We are confident that you will notice an increase in energy and engagement over the next week.
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