What Great Leadership Looks Like When Everything Goes Wrong
There’s a common management acronym used to describe those times when careful planning and strategy go awry: VUCA, which is short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Undoubtedly this last year left leaders’ heads spinning with how to navigate this VUCA work world.
Workplace leaders can’t fix the fallout from the crises the world has seen this year. And that’s ok. But the importance of strong leadership skills in organizations during a time when everything seems to be going wrong can’t be overemphasized enough. Great leaders must acknowledge what’s within their control, and that’s supporting the company’s greatest assets — its people.
While there are many ways leaders can guide teams through times of VUCA, the following traits are essential for leaders to demonstrate now and to continue to foster in themselves throughout their careers.
In a volatile world, empathy is the most significant behavior managers can show their teams. For the last year, demonstrating empathy in leadership means understanding that work isn’t like it used to be. Employees have challenges and distractions they didn’t previously face when working in an office. One way to show empathy is by encouraging team members to make wellbeing a top priority, whether that’s taking time off or adjusting their work schedules to care for family members.
Research shows a connection between the emotional well-being of employees and their productivity. Emotions can be contagious. When employees witness unpleasant interactions between coworkers, they feel emotionally depleted. Empathetic leaders are skilled at reading how people are feeling and addressing problems before they escalate.
Because a company’s greatest asset is its talent, empathy simply makes good business sense. Empathetic managers experience higher performance and less turnover on their teams. This high emotional intelligence helps managers motivate their team members and defuse tense situations.
Leaders must reflect carefully on how they communicate in the remote and distributed workplace. Many subtle body language cues are lost in virtual work, while video calls may magnify some unintentional nonverbal communication cues. Leaders should consider their words, tone, voice, and manner of communicating to employees during meetings. To compensate for the ambiguity of virtual conversations, overcommunicate to every group possible, watch every signal, and be intentional about the messages sent to the team.
Harvard Business Review explains why overcommunication is so critical. “When leaders clearly communicate their expectations, they avoid blindsiding people and ensure that everyone is on the same page. In a safe environment, employees can relax, invoking the brain’s higher capacity for social engagement, innovation, creativity, and ambition.”
Beyond simply sharing information, leaders must understand how to use communication to foster their team’s growth. They can provide broader context but should also encourage their direct reports to make their own decisions. Leaders who have learned to ask good questions empower their teams even during uncertainty rather than preventing progress.
Creating a psychologically safe workplace means encouraging employees to bring their authentic selves to work. But they won’t feel comfortable doing that unless they see leaders also showing up authentically. It’s time to scrap whatever stoic vision leaders once had of themselves and show their vulnerability.
Authenticity means avoiding sugar-coating your communications. Instead, be transparent and straightforward about any uncertainties. Employees appreciate this honesty. The more employees see a 360-degree view or the “human side” of their leader, the more confident and trusting they will feel.
However, in times of VUCA, remember that teams need to see their leaders calm and confident. Employees look to leadership to determine their own sentiment on the company’s performance. Confidence and authenticity aren’t mutually exclusive. Leaders should show their employees that the organization and other leadership members are continuing to make thoughtful, strategic decisions even in a time of crisis.
Developing leaders ready to tackle volatility
Dream as they might, leaders have no crystal ball to guarantee a future of projects and timelines going according to plan. But they can build a defense shield around those plans, their company, and their employees by developing the skills that can help them tackle whatever complexities the world throws their way. Leaders who show empathy, strong communication, and authenticity will successfully steer their employees and company through the most trying of challenges.
Start building a leadership development program with empathy, communication, and authenticity at its core with Reimagining Leadership Development for a Multi-Generational Workforce.