Why courageous leadership matters in the hybrid work environment

The pandemic forced disruption upon our workplaces that resulted in many of us working from home and, as we move through 2021, organisations are looking to a new hybrid model that combines remote work and office collaboration.

Many leaders have been contacting me about their staff (and themselves) feeling anxious about returning to the office after over a year of working from home. What strategies can they put in place to help their staff make the transition?

Some of you will be familiar with my Courageous Leadership Model and I thought it would be interesting to apply it to this situation - leaders can use it as a ready-reckoner to help them navigate the rapidly-evolving hybrid work environment.

I've identified 4 Keys of Courageous Leadership which are explained in my free whitepaper:

In this week's newsletter I'll explore the first two keys and what leaders might like to consider in supporting staff to transition to the hybrid environment and while things are still quite uncertain in this volatile COVID-world.

I'd also encourage you, no matter what leadership challenge you're facing, to do a check in with these four keys and make sure you have them covered. This model will be part of my new book, Cultivate - how rural and regional leaders grow high performing teams, which will be released later this year :)

Key 1: Help your people feel safe

Psychological safety is the key factor of building a high performing team. As a leader what are you doing to help your people feel safe and reassured during this new time of change? Are you checking in with them? Are you asking them about how they are going? And are you deeply listening, not judging?

Psychologically safe team members feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea. We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, solution-finding, creative and persistent when we feel safe. We perform better and connect with others more effectively. Conversely when we're under threat and don't feel safe, this shuts down perspective and our analytical reasoning. Our brains cannot perform at their best.

Will Rogers said that, "In times of crisis, people want to know that you care, more than they care what you know."

I attended a fabulous webinar this week by Dr Michelle McQuaid called Caring For Wellbeing At The Me, We & Us Levels In Workplaces (you can view the webinar here). Her team's research found that if our manager expresses care, compassion and appreciation towards us it has a positive impact on our sense of thriving at work, impacting on job performance, job satisfaction, and workplace commitment. Its a win-win situation though as the research also found that expressing care for workers benefits the manager's well-being more than the team's!

It is all about dosage though - managers can't just express care often, it must be frequently. However many leaders feel they are doing it frequently while their teams reported that they are only doing it sometimes.

I heard of one leader who's team member reached out to them to ask for help and was told, "you should know how to do that." The result was that team member felt that the leader didn't care about them, trust has been destroyed, he does not feel safe with the leader and he will never ask for help from his leader again. What a shame. Imagine the difference had the leader expressed care, thanked the person for the question and had coached them to find a solution?

So leaders, you need to up your dosage of expressing care towards your team. If you think you're too busy, or overwhelmed to do this or that its not really that important, then remember that you will benefit positively from this action of expressing care, compassion and appreciation. Michelle says that this is one of the most powerful ways leaders can support well-being in the workplace during this time of great uncertainty.

Key 2: Practice Emotional Courage

Emotional courage is the willingness to feel uncomfortable emotions and feelings, rather than supress them or avoid them. Many of us lack self-awareness in this area and yet by not tuning into, and sitting with, these emotions they unconsciously end up driving our behaviours, many of which are not always the most effective. High performing leaders have a high degree of self-awareness and emotional courage and are able to choose their responses rather than act on auto-pilot or in default mode.

It takes emotional courage to express vulnerability with your team. One leader I work with (let's call him Mark) has expressed his struggle and anxiety about returning to work in the office to his whole team. In being open and authentic he has given permission to his staff to also express their fears and feelings. He has asked me to facilitate a workshop session for his leadership team to discuss how to best support their staff to transition back to the office.

Many leaders I know also struggle with the need to be right or to know all the answers. During this time of great uncertainty, no-one can know all the answers - its impossible! In fact you're putting a huge amount of pressure on yourself if you think you need to be on top of everything all the time. Emotional courage is admitting you don't know all the answers. What a gift to yourself and your team! On-going uncertainty is an opportunity to build trust and the research shows that asking for help is the number one way to build trust within a team. It also assists with performance.

Researchers from the University of Virginia found that if you judge a hill you need to climb while standing by yourself, your brain will perceive the hill as being 20 percent steeper than if you’re standing next to a friend—even if that friend is looking in another direction. So if we ask for help and have others with us when facing a challenge our brains perceive the difficulty of the task differently than if we are by ourselves, trying to do it alone. What a great success hack!

By getting his leadership team together to discuss how to support their staff, Mark is asking for help and signalling that he doesn't know all the answers - emotional courage in action.

My final words on emotional courage in this newsletter are that in additional to increasing your self awareness, asking for help and being vulnerable, leaders must also invest in listening to staff.

Brené Brown says that, "Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behaviour. If you say, "I do not do fear or feelings, you are not a leader.”

If you're to address the fears and feelings of your staff, you need to be willing to sit in the discomfort of what these conversations might bring up in you. As well as listening to your staff, emotional courage also involves you taking action to address their fears and feelings and not invalidating them, minimising them or ignoring them. Often we do this when we don't have the capability to have the conversations because it makes us uncomfortable. if this is you as a leader, then I'd strongly advise you to invest in some coaching to develop your emotional courage muscle.

In my next newsletter I'll zoom in on Keys 3 (Encourage Creativity and Accountability) and 4 (Keep Connected to Self and Others and Support Your Team to do the Same).

Working from home is not going anywhere so employers need to realise that we will never go back to the workplace model of 100% of staff in the office from 9-5, Monday to Friday. Therefore coming up with new, flexible ways of working are imperative if you are to be an employer of choice.

Respondents to a global survey of executives reported in Forbes magazine found remote employees have improved their work-life balance and retention rates by 46%. The study also reported that, "C-suite executives revealed that remote workers significantly improved their productivity since working remotely. Increased efficiency may be attributed to not commuting, minimized workplace distractions and more freedom to work during the hours that are best for each individual."

For leaders, the 4 Keys of Courageous Leadership are a model to help you navigate through the uncertainty as we make the transition so that you can create environments where your people thrive and perform at their best.

What are the ways that you can support your staff to feel safe? How could you show more emotional courage and what would change if you did?


XX Cynthia