All bets are off – Leadership in the times of Covid-19

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All bets are off
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19 May 2020

A message to our friends

From Poppy Jaman and Sarah Hughes

As we smile hello to each other through the magic of Zoom, in our PJs, no makeup and a cuppa by our side, we reflect on what has happened to the world in such a short time. There were lots of insights and moments when all we could do was reassure each other that things would be okay eventually. The thing that we settled on was the importance of compassionate, flexible and transparent leadership; a way of leading that can hold onto safe ground when everything is so utterly chaotic. We landed on an ‘all bets are off’ message we wanted to share with colleagues and friends, who are having the same conversations all around the globe.

Poppy shared this tweet during the early days of the crisis. It speaks to the reality for us all, and still now, weeks down the line:

"Leadership & family challenges are somewhat the same right now; uncertainty from constant change, morale drop from isolation, fear of financial future, concern for healthcare & NHS, grief from loss. Blurry boundaries to hold kindness, humanity & community as priority is okay."

There have been lots of great pieces about leading in times of volatility or financial crisis, lots of constructive ideas about how to establish routines and how to conduct efficient Zoom meetings. But we suspect what is needed most is for leaders to put adaptability and psychological resilience centre stage.

As leaders, our job is to create opportunities for growth, keep our organisations motivated, be optimistic and upbeat about the future and take appropriate risks, but the truth is that right now, that’s the hardest thing to do. We can usually overlay these demands onto structure, process, clarity about roles and responsibilities, a classic management command and control approach. The problem is that people are not where they should be; or, let’s rephrase that: they are not where they normally are.

We realise that achieving impact now relies heavily on making sure our people feel it is possible to live and work during this pandemic, with care and support permeating through the DNA of our organisations.

Both of us have felt at different times anxious and worried about upholding the standards we have previously set for ourselves, but have found that by embracing ambiguity we can give both ourselves and those who work with us a break. By letting go of normal working behaviours, we are becoming more comfortable with this blurring of boundaries.

We are less concerned about counting the hours our teams are working and focused more on our purpose – are we living up to our values? Are we creating the conditions for our colleagues to adapt and embrace changes in a healthy way? Are we being compassionate? We realise that achieving impact now relies heavily on making sure our people feel it is possible to live and work during this pandemic, with care and support permeating through the DNA of our organisations. It’s not what we say that matters, but what we do.

Maybe in the current climate we should give ourselves and each other permission to deliver the job at hand and not worry about all the social constructs and etiquettes in place for ‘sleek and perfect’ delivery.

This is not about abandoning professionalism; neither is it about compromising boundaries. But going forward, we need to make it okay and be thankful that our colleagues are bending all their boundaries to bring work into their families and homes. We know that people all over the world are navigating these dilemmas, and there is safety in numbers (obviously socially distanced), but what will be right for one organisation may not be okay for another. It is crucial for leaders to co-create new rules and new boundaries.

For some of us, this is the opportunity of a lifetime to create workplaces which truly operate collaboratively with the people who work in them and the people they serve. Workplaces that take pride in being family friendly, that share in grief and sadness and understand the power of trusting people to do their jobs.

As we coo at each other’s children, pets, bookshelves and various homely backdrops, and laugh at the new work attire, we have to remember that people are doing their best. This is evident in the productivity of our organisations. Not once did we think that our people were not pulling their weight; indeed, quite the opposite. The desire to help, to be present, to connect, is as strong as ever.

For some of us, this is the opportunity of a lifetime to create workplaces which truly operate collaboratively with the people who work in them and the people they serve.

Maybe in the current climate we should give ourselves and each other permission to deliver the job at hand and not worry about all the social constructs and etiquettes in place for ‘sleek and perfect’ delivery. Maybe it is time to end persecutory perfectionism and replace it with compassion, good humour and camaraderie. As we sit smiling at each other through the airwaves, we know that even meetings in our PJs have been productive, they have been important and nurturing.

We know this might seem easier said than done. We know that for many pyjama meetings will never be a thing, that windows into our colleagues’ lives are a bit unsettling and it takes time to get used to it. The absurdity of it all is real; we will never undo the impact this time has had on us, but we can grab the opportunity to keep the good bits for our workplace cultures and ourselves.

Maybe it is time to end persecutory perfectionism and replace it with compassion, good humour and camaraderie.

At some point many of us will return to the offices we have abandoned. We will see each other again in the flesh and renegotiate yet another set of boundaries and think about what we shared. We suspect that for many of us there will be a warmth between us that will have grown exponentially during this pandemic, and whilst we will not miss the despair and fear, we hope to keep this insight into our colleagues’ lives; to see them whole, as human beings with funny quirks and naughty cats.

All bets are off, you decide what culture you want to see. For some things, maybe we can start again.

Photo by Matilda Wormwood on Pexels
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