Overcoming COVID’s Communication Gaps

As a leader, has the advent of “working from home” distanced you from your employees? As a result, have you witnessed unwanted behaviors? Perhaps you have even realized the unexpected: workers who are actually worse off.

In some companies, we have noticed a surprising phenomenon: Employees who had a good relationship with the organization’s leaders before COVID are now becoming fearful of the same executives. In other words, a certain anxiety has arisen.

It’s led to many staff members working longer and harder, but this added effort doesn’t come from a healthy place. Ultimately, this behaviour does more harm than good because it’s being driven in a way that’s just not sustainable.

The Problem

The average Jamaican worker operates in a perpetual state of low anxiety. The proof? Managers who arrive here from other countries notice talented individuals acting like victims. Furthermore, many of our workers thrive when they migrate to more supportive environments.

On a daily basis, local staff members cope with their fears by developing a heightened sensitivity towards the “Big Man” or “Boss Lady”. Outsiders are shocked to see the deference our employees give to powerful people, going out of their way to elevate and “Big Them Up”.

For example, staff members in some organizations know exactly where the top manager is at all times: when she is absent, work comes to a halt. In others, people scan the CEO’s demeanour to understand his mood. If he is on the warpath, they broadcast the news internally, and warn their colleagues to act accordingly.

But these are all just survival techniques. Our workers developed these habits because executives embody a threat to their well-being. As in slavery, the wrong word from the wrong leader can lead to dire outcomes: public shame, disrespect and separation.

While the exact coping mechanisms vary, their intent is the same: to relieve the state of anxiety. And to some degree, they succeed.

The Pandemic’s Impact

Enter COVID-19 and the mandate to work from afar. Some are thriving: they have escaped the scrutiny of micro-managers and enjoy a fresh freedom to be productive.

However, most are not accustomed to the new disconnection from their organization’s leadership. Now, they are left to their own thoughts and worst fears: a bad thing. Here’s why it happens.

The fact is, the average worker is a social creature: closely linked to other people in the workplace with whom they can share informal interactions all day long. Any scary news or rumors were (before COVID) moderated by the presence of their colleagues, even if no words were passed. At a glance, one could gather critical information by simply observing the environment.

Furthermore, if the CEO happened to walk through the company, staff could feel comforted by her proximity, reducing their anxiety. The quality of her “Good Morning” and the quickness of her pace communicated valuable messages. Questions like “Will I be fired today?” dissipated with her smile.

With new work from home norms (such as Zoom) all these emotional supports have disappeared. In fact, staff is spending more time in meetings than ever before. Perhaps it’s all an effort to compensate for the lack of informal communication which has fueled rumours and driven up anxiety.

Creating the Contact People Need

In a radical departure from the past, some are suggesting that the physical workplace should be retained…but only as a place to socialize. By contrast, an employees’ focused, productive efforts should occur at home, where they are free of distractions. The original purpose of the two locations should be swapped.

But that’s futuristic, post COVID thinking. We can’t follow this prediction today because of the pandemic. What can be done in the meantime?

Some companies have responded by creating informal gatherings between employees. These are opportunities for their people to enjoy each other’s company without a business agenda. Apps like Remo and Airmeets are built for these kinds of interactions, offering far more possibilities than the average meeting software.

However, the most important chats are not with peers, but with superiors. These can be implemented to prevent a rise in anxiety. In spite of busy schedules, some companies are including executives in game nights, cocktail hours, joint training and other gatherings. These are designed, scripted activities (not just random hangouts) which are meant to reduce the emotional distance from bottom to top.

In this context, these informal, but intentional, interactions between leaders and staff serve an important purpose: they help compensate for a cultural challenge in the Jamaican workplace. Together, they provide a way for companies to avoid a predictable spike in employee anxiety in pandemic times. It’s a corporate tactic suited for the distance we’re forced to maintain.

Signs of an Unhealthy Probation

Years ago, I mistakenly worked for someone I shouldn’t have. Since then, I have wondered: could I have foreseen what transpired? Were there early warning signs I overlooked?

Abundant research shows that employees don’t leave companies; they leave bad managers. We need look no further than the outgoing White House, with its record high turnover, to find an outstanding example. Many high-profile staffers depart (and have left) amidst a storm of tweeted insults.

I had a manager who did the same: publicly bad-mouthing me to others long after we had parted ways. Since then, I have scoured my memory to determine what the predictors of an unhealthy relationship with a boss might be. After all, if I could see them happening in real-time, I could confront them, knowing that they never go away by themselves.

Anyone who is considering a new position can do the same. For most jobs, companies offer a probationary period to test an employee’s suitability. In their eagerness to please, few new hires consciously realize it’s also a unique opportunity to ask: “Are there early warning signs of an incompetent manager who will eventually make my life miserable?” While these aren’t easy to pick up, here are three red flags you should look out for on your next assignment.

1. Being Liked

Arguably, it’s a natural desire to want to be liked, but becoming a competent manager involves outgrowing this everyday tendency. Over time, good managers learn to place the welfare of others and the mission of the company above their own need to be accepted.

In this context, a probationary period is a chance to see what your manager does under stressful situations. Will they stick to principles, or give in to the weakness to say and do things which are popular, or avoid getting themselves into trouble…all in order to be liked?

If you witness your manager “throwing people under the bus” i.e. blaming others in order to be liked or accepted, watch out. It’s safe to assume that the worst treatment meted out to others will one day be directed at you.

But this doesn’t mean that your manager is a “bad” person. They may be very well-intentioned…and completely clueless. Your task in this phase is to uncover the raw truth about their competence and act accordingly, setting aside any wishful thinking so you can take decisive action.

2. Looking Good

Another faulty behaviour to watch out for are those intended to make a manager look good…at all costs. There are many variants of the theme: some focus on physical objects such as their clothing, cars and houses. Others try to show off using their kids or spouse. A few lord their intellectual or artistic achievements.

It all amounts to a relentless campaign to compete with, defeat, and dominate those around them. As a new employee, if your manager uses you as a tool to further his/her ego-based objective, it’s corrosive.

Why? The moment will eventually come when you make a mistake. If your manager’s reaction under pressure seems bombastic (i.e. out of proportion), he/she may be putting the welfare of others in the back seat. Instead, their efforts to avoid looking bad include a tendency to become abusive.

3. Not Stepping Up as the Owner

As a new employee, perhaps the most difficult (but important) trait to detect in your manager surrounds taking responsibility. It’s a skill many managers struggle with, finding it to be unnatural. After all, it flies in the face of self-protective human behaviour which is so essential to our basic survival.

In fact, holding oneself publicly accountable equates to putting oneself in harm’s way…at risk. The act of doing so on a continuous basis is the very definition of a capable manager.

Yet, it remains a tricky behavior for employees to flag, especially early in their careers. Here’s a useful shortcut: observe if your manager apologizes sufficiently when he/she makes a mistake. You’ll be able to know by measuring the degree to which the apology restores the trust and goodwill that existed before the error was made.

In fact, if you work for a manager who publicly apologizes for a mistake you (not him/her) made, pay attention. Their resistance to the temptation to hang you out to dry, may indicate that you have a true winner.

This positive “warning” sign may mean that you shouldn’t leave. However, if all you can sense are the other incompetencies listed above, consider your probation a success: you have detected a manager you should probably quit.

How to Inspire “Paused” Employees

As a result of the pandemic and the recession, are many of your staff-members unconsciously “working-to-rule”? In other words, have they reverted to doing the minimum possible to keep their jobs? If so, what can you as an employer do to break them out of a dangerous rut which could drive your firm all the way into bankruptcy?

These are scary times, and with good reason. Here in Jamaica, COVID is spiking to unforeseen levels and as the death-toll mounts, even more people are testing positive. Furthermore, the economy faces poor predictions as we enter the traditional slowdown of the tourist season. Arguably, business confidence is at its lowest ever.

Consequently, most of your employees are probably stalled. Confronted by bad news and distracted by children who would normally be in school, they are overwhelmed. Laying awake at night, they are pre-occupied by the need to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

It seems only natural: in response to a threat, you should focus on defending yourself. However, when the threat is enduring, there’s a limit to how well a good defense works. Case in point: you can’t win the football World Cup by only preventing goals from scoring. Plus, deep within the human spirit lies a steady force that drives us to do more than just survive.

Unfortunately, few corporate leaders know how to transcend the “survival” stage of the pandemic. With each spike, they reset their companies’ attention to the usual: social distancing, wearing masks and working from home. But there will always be spikes…for now. A vaccine won’t make its way to our citizens for several years.

In the meantime, your company may just go out of business.

Instead of waiting and resetting every few months, how can you take your employees out of the “pause”?

1. Think Big

A few years ago, the US Coast Guard had such a challenge. The world was changing rapidly and its old operating mode as the first-responder to sea-based emergencies was no longer working. The threats it faced were now organized: some by terrorists and others by global forces such as climate change.

The organization needed to take into account incipient trends, then rise far above them. As opposed to merely reacting, it needed to shape long-term outcomes. That could not happen in the short term.

Instead, the organization developed a decades-long scenario in which it transformed itself, creating a new, influential role in the future. From that end-point, it worked back to today, resulting in a difficult re-organization impacting thousands.

But my experience leading Jamaican companies planning tells me that the articulation of a vision isn’t enough. To some degree, we are immune from such leader-talk courtesy of politicians. Now your people are, quite rightly, skeptical of bombast.

They should be.

Research shows that overblown visions of the future can be de-motivational. Why? When a goal is too far out of people’s reach, they give up, asking themselves, “Should I waste time on a failure?”

2. Be Fact-Based and Realistic

The first way out of this dilemma is to create a numbers-oriented map of the journey from the future back to the present. Such a chart is quite difficult to craft, but it starts by defining a specific year for your goal, such as our own “Vision Jamaica 2030”.

Furthermore, it must show how critical metrics such as top line revenue, EBITDA and market share need to change to accomplish your end-point. Plus, it needs to capture qualitative milestones. Finally, projects and interventions which take months or years to implement should be added in and synchronized with the other targets.

The end-result is a detailed picture of the journey your organisation must take from now until the stated year of your vision.

Some would say that such detail is likely to be “incorrect”, and they are right. This is not an exercise in prediction or accuracy. Instead, it’s meant to galvanize your organization with not only a destination, but a realistic means of reaching it.

Why is this activity important to employees? Without this level of specificity, they won’t buy-in, and will simply add the goal to their mental list of empty promises. This is the problem with overarching, vague vision statements. They have stopped working because people are immune to the optimism of “world-class” pronouncements which are more ignorant than credible.

One way to tackle this challenge is to involve all your staff in your data gathering. After all, this is their future you are crafting. Take care to address all the facts and assumptions they deem important.

The fact is, in these difficult times people want to be inspired…but moreover, they don’t want to be disappointed by a CEO’s pipe-dream. Focus on creating a vision that’s realistic and you’ll replace their unwanted fears with a motivation that enlivens and lifts them to extraordinary achievement.