Leaders help a ship stay the course in both good and bad times. And the world is now seeing unprecedented bad times. We spoke to Alis Anagnostakis, executive coach, Co-Founder of Mind Learners and Senior Associate at Performance Frontiers about the role of leadership in shaping the workplace, post-Covid-19. She described the crisis as a “perfect litmus test for good and bad leadership”, noting that the crisis has been merciless for bad leaders but has highlighted great leadership.
What is the Covid-19 leadership test? How can leaders create a culture that promotes wellbeing, both physical and mental, in the workplace?
Alis Anagnostakis: In the past 3 months, the very definition of ‘workplace’ has radically shifted. Companies that had debated for years whether ‘work from home’ should be allowed have pivoted in the span of days, setting up thousands of employees to work remotely. Red tape has suddenly disappeared; processes that used to take months were simplified to expedite action; people have been empowered to make decisions and many of my clients have seen a wave of engagement and purpose animate their organisation, as everyone was trying to make sense and continue to function under unprecedented circumstances.
This crisis has been the perfect litmus test for good and bad leadership. It has made it impossible to hide bad leadership under the guise of charisma and organisational politics – because the consequences of bad judgement and ego-driven leadership have been immediate and obvious. Conversely, it has made great leadership stand out like never before. Great leaders have been able to manage their emotions throughout the crisis, to offer an example of empathy, to provide their teams with emotional support – regularly checking in with people and keeping all lines of communication open, even as everybody was working from home.
For many teams, the topic of wellbeing has disappeared from the agenda and has been replaced, by necessity, by ‘survival’. The best leaders turned this situation into an opportunity to connect with their teams on a deeper level and foster their team members’ sense of significance and belonging. Many of my clients have shared with me how these months have given them the chance to get to know their teams better beyond work. People got to see the inside of each other’s houses as they connected over Zoom, they got to meet each other’s kids, pets and even spouses who often worked from home in the same space as their partners.
This sudden and unexpected intimacy blurred the lines between work and home and allowed people in the workplace to discover and connect with each other in their shared humanity, with all its vulnerability. Team members have made space for each other as they had to juggle homeschooling with working from home. Wise leaders have created flexibility for their team members to balance the demands of all their life-roles. In those organisations where leaders have managed to make space for their teams to adjust to this completely unusual reality, by communicating openly and transparently, being compassionate and flexible, adjusting expectations and putting people first, the culture has been strengthened and this has had an unquestionable positive impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
What advice do you have for leaders on how to take care of their own mental health and wellbeing, as some continue to work from home?
Alis Anagnostakis: I think it’s crucial for leaders not to forget they are human too and that the principle of “putting one’s oxygen mask on first” applies to leadership also. Leaders that have been aware of the impact their own mental state has on the mental wellbeing of their team, have tended to actively take care of themselves. Indirectly, it has also been a way for them to take care of everybody else in the workplace and at home.
They have been aware that, with everybody working from home, there is no psychological distance between life-roles. Suddenly, people are managers, parents and partners – all from their living room – all day long. Every day.
The natural breaks between activities or meetings disappear. There is no commute time – which for many has been a blessing – yet this also meant no time to transition from the workday to family time.
The leaders that have navigated this time most successfully tend to consciously create boundaries for their own health and wellbeing. They continued to exercise and eat healthily, took steps to separate their workspace – even symbolically – from their home space, either by reserving one room or corner of the house to work and avoiding that space outside of work – or by creating time boundaries – clear pockets of time dedicated to working and clearly separated from family time.
I know of leaders that have kept journals throughout this time – a very powerful wellbeing practice that allows reflection. Others have taken extra steps to compensate for the lack of human contact by connecting actively with their teams via phone or video conferencing, not just to discuss business, but simply to check-in on people and touch base on a human level. Many have done the same with family members whom they could not visit during this time – they called more often and spent more time connecting. These leaders understand the paramount importance of meaningful human connection for mental health and have not deprived themselves of social contact, even as they were social distancing. Also, many have taken this opportunity to spend more quality time with their loved ones and to play with their kids (whereas, before the pandemic, they might have only got to see them at night), or to get involved in house chores that have brought comfort and a sense of control, in what has been, a highly volatile and ambiguous situation.
Alis is a long-time group facilitator and executive coach who supports leaders, teams and companies on their journeys of personal and organisational evolution. She has a Masters in Positive Psychology and is now undertaking a PhD, exploring transformative learning and leaders’ consciousness development. She deeply believes wisdom is one of the scarcest and most needed resources in today’s organisations and focuses her research on new ways to help broaden leaders’ mindsets and worldviews towards more complex and mature ways of thinking and acting. www.alisanagnostakis.com