by Edward D. Hess, author of “Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change

We’ve just been through a stressful year of disruption, trauma, fear, and loss. No company will ever be quite the same as it was before COVID-19. Neither will any employee. What that means is no leader can lead the same way they led in February of 2020, either.

As we move into recovery, leaders will have to deploy a whole new mindset and a whole new skill set.

Not all of this is COVID-driven. We’ve known for years, decades even, that the old-school leadership model would have to change. But for sure the pandemic has accelerated the need for a new kind of leader.

Essentially, leaders must embrace the mindset and master the skills needed to create high engagement and enable continuous high performance in constantly changing times.

As we move into recovery, leaders must be able to do the following:

Manage their own emotions and behaviors…

Inner Peace is a foundational building block for a hyper-learner for many reasons: It allows you to quiet your ego, stay open to the best ideas, and connect with others in meaningful ways. And in times of great chaos (like right now), it helps you tune out the noise so you can do the kind of high-level critical thinking that allows you to make smart decisions.

Inner peace allows you to be kind of a port in the storm.A huge spotlight will be on leaders right now, both inside companies and in the external world. That means we need to be in firm control of our inner world.

… and defuse the anxiety of employees.

People are really suffering right now, and emotional well-being matters. Remember that employees take their cues from you, so a state of calm is more important than ever. Part of helping neutralize anxiety is communication; when you don’t do it well and often, people will fill in the void with their own worst-case scenarios.

Defusing anxiety is more than going through the motions of communication, though. It’s about communicating in ways that create human connection and relatedness. Now, more than ever, people need to feel cared about as unique human beings.

Create a sense of “We are all in this together, and together we will thrive”.

The workplace of the future is an idea meritocracy. The old caste system — a relic of the Industrial Revolution when the ‘command-and-control’ leadership model reigned — is dead. Leaders need to inspire hope, but not in the sense of ‘Don’t worry, we will rescue the rest of you.’ The message needs to be ‘Together we will thrive.’

Of course, this message must be backed by a workplace environment that allows for true collaboration. People must be able to have high-quality conversations, and it’s the leader’s job to set up the right conditions — and not let their own ego step in and wreck them.

Anticipate market shifts and be disruptive.

For instance, leaders need to know how to manage digital transformation. This is where the hyper-learning mindset really comes into play. Leaders must stay open to the future and really listen to customers, rather than clinging to old, preconceived ideas and hearing what you want to hear.

Operational excellence will be table stakes in the recovery and beyond. Every company will be in the innovation business. Every organization will need to ‘skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,’ as Wayne Gretzky so famously said.

Proactively manage change.

Change is the new given. Impermanence is the new mindset needed. This will require embedding in your business a “story” than enables every employee to embrace change as opposed to being fearful of change or running away from change. That requires teaching employees how to go into the unknown and figure it out. People will need new tools to use, and small teams will be the structure needed to continuously adapt. Change is an iterative process — and change needs to be challenging but not overwhelming. Change is emotional. That means leaders need to understand the psychology of change: what kinds of emotions/behaviors to expect and how to guide people to positive emotions.

When people know they must constantly learn, unlearn, and relearn, then change isn’t some upsetting experience. It’s just life.

Foster quick, effective, smart collaboration.

No one person can ever have the answers. It takes teamwork. People have to be able to arrive at smart answers quickly, and that means creating the conditions for collective flow to happen and building what I call “caring, trusting teams.” While many factors play into good collaboration, an “otherness” focus is at the center.

Otherness is both a mindset and a behavior. Leaders first need to overcome their own tendency to seek confirmation for what they believe. This means acknowledging that they need others to help them see solutions. They also need to behave in ways that show they respect the human dignity of others, and make sure all team members do the same.

Seek feedback continuously.

Yes, leaders need to seek feedback and embrace it as opposed to immediately reacting negatively. Embrace feedback graciously and gratefully. That takes humility. If you assume you know it all, you won’t be open to the ideas of others. Humility requires mastering the ego. While this may not be easy, it’s certainly possible to have a quiet ego once you get intentional about it.

Mindfulness meditation is one method. Another good option is to practice gratitude by saying thank you more often, writing thank-you notes to employees, and acknowledging often that you did not reach your leadership position all on your own. You had lots of help along the way.

Create a place where people really want to be.

As economic recovery takes hold and more opportunities begin to open up, we’ll see a mass exodus of people who were poorly treated during tough times. I suggest you be ready to capture them by taking steps to “humanize” your workplace culture.

Essentially this means you need to:

  • Be an idea meritocracy. This means the best data-driven idea or judgment wins, irrespective of rank, compensation, or power.
  • Cultivate workplace positivity. Positive emotions enable cognitive processing, innovative thinking, learning, and creativity. Negative emotions like fear and anxiety squelch them.
  • Respect human dignity. Respect every employee as a unique human being worthy of the opportunity to grow and develop their skills and to be economically rewarded in a manner that validates their human dignity and gives them the opportunity to live a meaningful life.
  • Operationalize “psychological safety” throughout your business. That requires you to build trust throughout your organization. That enables people to do the “hard stuff” like give constructive feedback, challenge the status quo, and find the courage to take risks.
  • Meet people’s self-determination needs. In part this means people must have input on how they do their jobs and feel a sense of competence in their work.

Adopt a new humanistic way of working.

Leaders must focus on training and developing people so they can be their “best selves.” Without a whole company of people working at top capacity, it will be tough for any business to survive in a super-competitive marketplace, notes Hess.

Every company will be in the human development business in addition to its core business. The quality of your human performance ultimately will be your strategic differentiator. That is why humanizing the workplace will be important.

COVID has been a workplace disruptor. It has required human adaptation and embracing new ways of working. As we move over time into a post-COVID era, leaders must embrace the reality that the business world will not go back to operating as it did in early 2020. It is time to continue to move forward, not to regress. By moving forward in the post-COVID phase, the rewards may be exponential. Don’t let a good recovery go to waste.

 

Edward D. Hess is professor of business administration, Batten Fellow, and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and the author of “Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change“. Professor Hess spent 20 years in the business world as a senior executive and has spent the last 18 years in academia. He is the author of 13 books, over 140 articles, and 60 Darden case studies.

 

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