After several months away, many will soon return to their offices, plants, retail establishments and other workplace settings. As they do, they’ll find a changed, uncertain world as concerns over the spread and risk of COVID-19 continue.
In anticipation, organizations have quickly developed workplace rules addressing healthcare recommendations and regulatory requirements. Hopefully, these rules will help minimize pandemic harm and legal exposure. However, they will not be enough to address day-to-day COVID-19 issues relating to how people will work together; how difficult staffing decisions will be made; and what principles will govern the resolution of personal issues and team problems. For example, how will leaders dealing with their own uncertainties and concerns respond when team members: 1) refuse to adopt new distancing or masking requirements saying they are unnecessary, unproven and a violation of their personal beliefs? 2) reject their employer’s new protective standards as inadequate? 3) raise other conflicting medical, political, and cultural views about the pandemic’s origins and severity?
To minimize the divisiveness that these and other issues may raise, employers must proactively recommit to operating in-line with their values with the same intensity devoted to their new medical and compliance standards. What happens now will determine whether their stated principles will be operationally critical or discarded when tough times hit. Especially in moments as turbulent as these, reliance and trust in values should be lodestars for consistency and stability. That will take leadership commitment, planning and action.
As a key and often under emphasized step, organizations must enlist their leaders to communicate on-the-job messages which give meaning to their values and how they apply to the daily work lives of team members. And, through their routine acts, leaders must demonstrate respect, inclusion, professionalism and open communication applying them for what they are: core operating principles designed to build teamwork, engage talent, surface ideas and concerns and enable individuals to focus and deliver their best results.
The following are key leadership steps intended to help communicate standards regarding core behavioral acts and to prevent, surface and professionally resolve problems.
- Leaders must know how to demonstrate their commitment to organizational values through what they say and especially during these extraordinary times of personal and organizational stress and rapid change.
- In plain, clear language they must communicate honestly about the safety of their workplace and the challenges the organization and their teams face. And they must remind their teams that no matter how stressful the times, behavior that is unprofessional, demeaning or divisive will not be accepted. All team members should be strongly encouraged to ask questions and express concerns about their health and organizational practices sooner rather than later.
- The effectiveness of communication hinges on repetition as our attention is directed to the critical health and other concerns raised by this crisis. Especially now, important messages need to be heard more than once. Organizations need to help leaders develop a cadence to talk about potential behavioral problems before they occur.
- This kind of leadership communication does not involve long talks or lectures. Instead leaders need to talk about standards for their teams and their expectations regarding basic behaviors of what’s acceptable and what’s not. They need to speak about behavior as they speak about team goals, results, safety, quality and like subjects. These communications don’t require leaders to know all the nuances of law, policy or health related matters. They have others they can consult for such assistance.
Instead in their own language leaders must deliver messages like these based on each organization’s specific values:
- How we treat one another will determine how effective our team will be;
- I want to know about anything that may interfere with any of our effectiveness; or ideas to help us do even better;
- I’ll listen and I’ll act;
- I may not always agree but I’ll listen;
- We’ll try to work out what we can;
- We’ll get help as we need to;
- This is how we’ll work together and get through this and beyond.
We cannot choose the times we live in or the challenges we face. But we can choose how we’ll respond. Now’s when our commitment to our values must drive what we do, how we communicate and how we resolve the challenging decisions that we’ll surely confront.
This crisis will ease and wane. Workplace culture — the way people do their work and behave — is most powerfully based on the foundation of past experiences and shared memories. How organizations act now can help strengthen the foundation of organizational values proving their validity and worth for this moment and as we move beyond it.