By Lili Powell and Bobby Parmar, Darden School of Business
Businesses still face a raft of challenges since COVID-19 struck, many of them tied to how we collaborate and communicate — and the sense of meaning or purpose that work holds in our lives.
The Great Resignation highlights the difficulties of retaining talent, as more and more people struggle to understand what they want out of their work life. And in some sectors, huge advances in agility — an unexpected gift of the pandemic — risk being dialled back as some try to return to the standards of what “normal” life used to be.
For leaders grappling with these issues and navigating a workplace that is perhaps more politicised than before, there is an imperative to build — or perhaps rebuild — the necessary organisational and personal resilience to weather whatever future storms lie ahead. And this is not an easy task.
We know from surveys by Gallup and other polling companies that before the pandemic, around 85 percent of people felt actively disengaged from work. During the pandemic, as work structures relaxed, people had more time to think about and question their motivation for doing their jobs.
Resilience and purpose
Resilience, like engagement, is driven by a sense of purpose. And in anchoring ourselves to purpose and to meaning, we are better equipped to meet fresh challenges head on and find opportunities to learn and improve.
Purpose is a means of staying buoyant in turbulent times. But there are caveats. Those working within healthcare, education, and the military, for example, typically regard their work as a vocation, or even a form of sacrifice. For them, purpose is less of an issue than the kind of leadership they get from their managers. Bouncing back from adversity and learning to grow as a result can of course be self-generated but can also be greatly enhanced by leaders who help give meaning to these experiences, especially if they help provide the employee with enough space for growth.
Leaders can provide real agency through their words and actions. They can help employees to step up, connect to purpose and to learn from and even reframe negative experiences.
Following experiences involving adversity, leaders need to build in time for recovery and rest both for themselves and their teams. Finding the space to rejuvenate is an essential element in achieving and maintaining resilience.
Gratitude vs. cost
Building resilience as a leader also hinges on creating a sense of connectedness with team members; cultivating a ‘relatedness’ with others ensures they feel valued, especially when things go wrong.
Things like purpose, engagement, autonomy, and competence are accelerated by leaders who have the capacity to reach out to others and show appreciation and gratitude. But when the to-do list starts getting long and the stakes get higher, this kind of human relatedness is often the first thing that goes out of the window — even if it is one of the things that leaders have the greatest control over.
This happens because we tend to see these aspects of leadership as a cost. There is a perception that connecting, giving feedback, showing gratitude, and relating takes more time, and that there is an associated cost in effort and resources that most leaders cannot afford to make. But leaders must talk to their people, anyway, so being mindful about what they say and how they say it is of crucial importance.
Change, practice, and habits
So, leaders looking to build the resilience of their teams reframe these efforts as investments, and they make the time in their calendars to practice connectedness, relatedness, and the supporting mechanisms they can enact. It is about starting small and scaling up, understanding that even little gestures can have a big impact.
Leaders can be fearful of changing their style because change of any kind implies discomfort. For that reason, they should aim to practice connecting better until it becomes a habit.
Habits are hard to form, but once they take hold, they are strong and hard to break. So, leaders must make the time in their schedule, find someone they can connect with, and practice relating better — practice ‘humane’ leadership — until it becomes second nature.