May 28, 2021

Leadership EQ during covid + beyond

photo credit: Brooke Lark, unsplash

None of us know when ‘over’ is going to be. Nor can we predict what our new normal is going to look like.

The proactive founders, leaders and People people out there are starting to take the bull by the horns and plan their response.

Some companies are rolling out remote-first working for the foreseeable future. Others are beefing up and upgrading existing flexible working policies. And, of course, some are having to make incredibly difficult and unfortunate decisions that impact many of their team’s employment status, sense of purpose and financial security.

However, when making these decisions, what we’re seeing far less of is leaders taking the opportunity to grab a different bull by some alternative horns in answering the question “who do we want to be when this is all over?”

I hope this blog post will persuade you that it’s worth digging deep, soul-searching and doing some truly honest self-reflection to make sure you’re considering your response to that question, now… well, like, yesterday, actually.

Your New {Leadership} Normal

When things have moved on, when we can sit across a table from a colleague and eat lunch together again — the world will have changed.

Colleagues will have bonds that are stronger and deeper than they were before; many of us will have supported a team member through sickness or through loss and all of us are supporting each other (at work, in our families and in our communities) to feel connected, take the pressure off ourselves and manage stress and anxiety like never before.

Without a catalyst, most improvement happens incrementally — fundamental change always comes as a result of a forcing factor. The coronavirus pandemic is a forcing factor on every level and at macro and micro scales. (Heck, speaking of ‘micro’ I’ve never written a blog post before; something that seems odd and a potentially shameful admittance in 2020, but there you have it… it took a pandemic to inspire me to publish, but now I’m here — and I pledge to keep it up!)

It’s a strange time for everyone but particularly for People people. Swathes of people are being made redundant and furloughed, and in other places business is busy and teams are pulling out all the stops to keep up with the pace. The extremes can be heady and we can be left feeling at once superfluous and essential. But any way you look at it, your People approach is in full-swing, and right now, leadership is in the spotlight.

Your people were always the life force of your business and right now, they’re rallying round like never before. They’re also paying attention to your leadership more than ever before. Good bosses who are clearly striving to do good at this time are getting recognised for doing so. Bad bosses are being named and shamed, insensitive letters and emails are being shared and going viral. What Glassdoor started (a kind of ‘Yelp’ for leaders and the cultures they create) has now exploded all over the internet. It is an incredibly difficult time for everyone, mistakes are being made and the best of intentions are paving the way to some pretty dodgy destinations.

People will remember what you did, sure. But more than that they will remember how you made them feel during this time (pinching this with pride from the magnificent Maya Angelou). Those feelings will be impacting engagement and the psychological contracts between companies and their people now and far into the future. My challenge to you, therefore, is to be honest with yourself about what your values are and commit to being honest with others about them; during Covid + beyond.

How to go about properly assessing your values? It starts with holding up a mirror and trying to remove our confirmation bias (we all have it!) in identifying the person staring back at you, but how can you truly self-reflect and be open to some real, potentially hard to handle, self discovery? How can you maintain this throughout your leadership career? The answer… Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

You may be thinking, “I’m incredibly emotionally intelligent, I wouldn’t have got to this stage in my career or the position of responsibility that I’m in were I not.” Well, that may well be the case; emotional intelligence is a journey not a destination and your EQ may well have contributed to your success. However, too often we see low-compassion cultures making their way into startups and scaleups. It’s certainly also true that in the past low-compassion was rewarded with leadership, a 2010 study found psychopathy present in 3% of the management cohort involved, this is 3 times the presence of psychopaths in the general population. But the world has moved on and the carrot and stick approach to leadership is so last decade. Mounting evidence shows the highest-performing and most engaged workforces have compassion at the core of their culture. So no matter where you are on your EQ roadmap, continuing (or starting) to train this ‘muscle’ should be front and centre in your leadership development.

Emotional Intelligence grows across five stages. It’s a step by step journey; each step preceding the next and requiring constant effort to truly master. Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness. It’s enhanced by a journey of work on the self, before some of the most crucial skills in compassionate leadership are unlocked; empathy and social skill. It’s hard work to be really awesome at all of these stages, all of the time, but it’s more than possible to make improvements. It’s time for some neuroscience…

Emotional intelligence can be learned; the neuroplasticity of our brains allows us to create new pathways and form new habits as well as cease using old ones. We are able to increase the size and capacity of our brains, and crucially, we are able to create stronger connections between the emotional and logical parts of our brains; it’s that interrelation of emotion + logic that is so important to keep strengthening.

From a neuroscientific perspective, not only can you choose to become more emotionally intelligent, moreover your brain-training ability is as hardwired as any ability to build muscle memory. We’ve spent so long marvelling at our ability to use reason and logic that sometimes we completely disconnect with the primal, tribal, connections to our past, to our innate ability and opportunity to carry on evolving.

Our prefrontal cortex is what separates us from animals, it gave us speech. Human language (stepping into the world of psychology) is inherently tangled in our perception of consciousness; we have the ability to plan, and to think about thinking.

So, get out of your subconscious and into a more conscious state of presence and use that ability to do some more thinking about how you think.

Leaning into this ability to give thinking time to your own thought processes, is the first step in working towards living a more authentically compassionate set of values.

Authentic Values for the Win

I have run so many workshops about culture and values over the years, with varying levels of engagement from an audience composed of as many cynics as champions of the concept.

Time and time again we come to the collective agreement that values must be lived and breathed in every action, decision and nuance of company culture in order to have meaning and impact, and that this must start and end with Leadership. THIS IS THE SECRET SAUCE.

I am lucky, I work for Unleashed. The values that underpin our work are the shared values of our founders and our small team.

Crises bring out your true colours. My founders talk a good talk on fairness, on transparency, on having a positive impact, on continuous learning. They talk a good talk on compassion, putting the team first, putting health (all kinds) first. Their talk is so good I was convinced I wanted to join after only one conversation with Anouk.

There is a reason their talk was so good and so immediately convincing. It’s because when it’s authentic, this doesn’t take work. It just, IS. (And, as such, they also walk the good walk!)

The way you treat people right now, IS who you are. Being under pressure doesn’t cause empaths to become narcissists, or fair people to become greedy. Who you are, at your core, comes to the fore.

It may be a time that you discover compassion you had lost touch with, or efficiency you didn’t know you had. Perhaps you have been able to mobilise and move at pace in a way that you thought was impossible. Whatever the case, you need to commit time and effort — and some of that awesome, primal neuro capacity — to defining your authentic self for your new normal. From there, you can work on ensuring you align your intentions with your behaviour.

So, who is it you want to be when this is all over? And what are you going to do to get there?

Here are three quick tips to set you on the right path.

  1. Feedback

Feedback, feedback and more feedback. Without it we can’t improve. Holding a metaphorical mirror up should include asking other people to tell you what they see in that mirror. Ask as many people as you can to describe how they would describe your values. Ask people who create a psychologically safe space for you and crucially, whose opinions you trust to be unbiased, honest and constructive.

2. Get Inspired

The team at Heights are currently mid-flow in their ‘work-ins’ series and we can’t recommend them enough (because as Heights explain, if your body needs work-outs, your mind needs work-ins!) James Doty is a Clinical Professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. He is also Founder and Director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education; so he’s a pretty big deal in the compassionate leadership space. You can re-watch his Heights Work-In here, and check out the remaining sessions in the Heights series here.

3. Read This Book!

Dr. Tara Swart’s wonderful books ‘Neuroscience for Leadership’ and The Source should be high up on your reading list. The book expands on how we can use our knowledge of the brain to better be leaders and offers practical, tangible ways to do so. It’s also a fascinating insight into some of the most exciting things we know about neuroplasticity and proactively changing our brains.

If you enjoy both boat puns and great insight on all things People, Culture + Leadership, then sign up for our newsletter Unleashed Thinking. One email per month, no spam.

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