A time for compassionate leadership

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​The issue of ‘trust’ has come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic – the levels of trust in leaders prior to the crisis were generally low and, in my view, the current situation has put leaders and managers under even greater scrutiny.

If trust wasn’t there when things were relatively stable, why would their levels of trust be even greater when they are experiencing a very real sense of personal and professional threat?

People will be highly sensitised to their environment, arguably looking for evidence to confirm their lack of trust.

The typical response may be for leaders to display even greater levels of command and control as they grapple with what is required of them, which we know in ordinary life can alienate and disengage staff.

With enormous disruption, leaders may be inclined to withdraw from genuinely engaging with their people and focus on task. This results in them not drawing on the collective knowledge and experience of their most valued asset, their people.

HR professionals have banged this drum for decades, and leaders who choose to engage their people in unprecedented ways will reap the benefits afterwards.

The lower the levels of trust, though, the less likely people are to offer up ideas and creativity and the more likely they are to become disengaged, stressed and overwhelmed.

The average leader is not adequately equipped to lead during this crisis – some leaders will step forward and step up to lead people through others may not.

What this situation requires is compassionate leaders – those who can authentically demonstrate that they care about their people.

However, there is likely to be a huge sense of nervousness, a questioning of what to do and how to do it. A sense of legitimacy perhaps. They haven’t faced anything like this before: Am I capable? What do I actually need to do? Do I want to be here doing this?

This may manifest as lacking capability and confidence – not ideal in the midst of a crisis when people are highly attuned to their environment and those ‘in charge’. For those that have been overly focused on profit over people, it will be a real challenge.

COVID-19 is, without doubt, the greatest test of leaders’ authenticity in our lifetime – and the support from HR professionals during this time is absolutely critical. So how can they help?

For a start many leaders overlook the importance of their people and the need to focus on them in a way that they may never have done before, and this may feel alien to them.

HR professionals can support leaders in supporting, engaging and listening to their people, and help them overcome any self-doubt, which hits bosses hard too (they are not infallible).

HR can help leaders reconcile their sense of self with what the crisis demands of them – creating the self-confidence to lead – and provide coaching, mentoring and even legal advice. Leaders need to be reminded that this is not just about task.

This is about genuinely engaging with people, including those who have been furloughed, and HR should be providing support and guidance on how to do that most effectively.

From conducting wellbeing audits and holding up the mirror for leaders to understand how the current situation is affecting physical and mental health and keeping leaders up-to-date on the mood of the organisation; to being available for real-time coaching and joining leaders in meetings they would not typically attend, this is where HR professionals really come into their own. Providing valuable insights and supporting their emotional intelligence.

At this time HR professionals are the glue for focusing on people and helping to create more compassionate leaders and organisational culture. People will remember how they and others were treated during the crisis. HR provides the moral compass and the constant reminder to leaders on not overlooking their colleagues.

Professor Jane Turner is pro-vice-chancellor for Enterprise and Business Engagement at Teesside University

Further reading:

Making the leadership leap

HR struggling to develop effective leaders

Is followership as important as leadership?

Let's show our emotions

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