The importance of good leadership in driving positive organisational outcomes is widely accepted and valued. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, organisations and their leaders have had to respond and react quickly in decision-making and communication. We have seen an array of positive and perhaps, less positive leadership behaviours from countries to organisations to communities.
The role of a great leader in an organisational context relies on a leader’s ability to foster trust, communicate with clarity, and their ability to be authentic and empathetic. Ultimately, good leadership is a key driver for high performing teams and highly engaged people, and therefore, positive organisational outcomes (Sarros, Cooper & Santora, 2008). During a crisis, employees will look to lean on leaders to support their wellbeing and engagement.
In our previous blog post (Staying Health (and Sane) When Working from Home), we highlighted the current changes to our routine and lifestyle, and our lack of social connection which poses risks to our health and wellbeing. Whilst many seek to understand and define the role of a leader in times of uncertainty through effective messaging, quick decision making and crisis management, we look to examine something more practical.
What makes a good leader, a great one, in the context of impacting and protecting employee mental health and wellbeing?
There is an abundance of literature examining the link between leadership and mental health. Current research highlights both transformational and transactional leadership as effective during times of crises. Whilst transactional leadership is useful for making rapid decisions, it is a short-term “here and now” measure for businesses who need to take immediate action for ensuring its survival (Firth-Cozens & Mowbray, 2001). As transactional leadership focuses on contingent reward and punishment, it may overlook and have an inconsistent relationship with employee engagement and wellbeing.
On the contrary, transformational leadership has a focus on protecting and promoting positive health outcomes, with transformational leaders understanding the critical role they play in fostering a positive organisational culture and building a followership to achieve this. The long-term sustainability of any organisation, relies on employee engagement, performance and retention as people are at the very core of all businesses.
Leaders who engage in this style of leadership foster employee engagement through making employees feel competent in their work while improving the quality of relationships within the team. However, during times of stress, and particularly through crises, there may be a tendency for leaders to adopt more transactional styles of leadership, focusing more on solving short-term issues than addressing long-term implications. It is a challenge for leaders to pause during a crisis and reflect on what they are trying to achieve in the short, medium and long term and make an active choice about their leadership style and their decisions on trust, reputation and branding.
What do transformational leaders do differently?
As we continue to act responsibly by isolating, the risks to our health and wellbeing continue to rise over time. And as COVID-19 continues to challenge our governments and businesses, many of us feel anxious and stressed about our jobs, finances and more. With our work and personal life overlapping, there is a higher likelihood that our stressors impair our ability to stay fully engaged and focused at work.
During a time of crisis, where unfamiliar risks are emerging and decision-making is time sensitive, it can be tempting to focus solely on operational and tactical level issues. However, as leaders we must not overlook our people as they too struggle to make sense of this new normal and adapt to the changes that are happening around (and to) them.
Empathy, a right-brain activity, allows leaders to step into their employee’s shoes to gain insight into what they are thinking and feeling. Some examples of cultivating empathy include:
Being authentic and genuine – investing time in getting to know more about people’s professional or personal interests. Make a point to ask about these interests during virtual catch ups
Listening and being present – listen to what people are saying with an open mind and without interruption. Focus on the person speaking to you and avoid multitasking or looking away
Whilst working flexibly is a well-known concept that has in recent years been formally introduced into many workplaces, our ways of working have continued to rely on face-to-face interaction with support from digital enablers
As a leader, fostering trust in teams has a strong impact on a leader’s ability to inspire and the ability of teams to innovate and feel motivated. Open, honest and frequent discussions help people feel a sense of preparedness and acceptance of the necessity for change.
Building trust in teams and with people is hard work and requires conscious effort. Some practical tips for leaders include
Being open and honest – communicate and act with transparency particularly in a crisis to build clarity and certainty in teams
Doing what you say you will do – be dependable and follow through with your commitments
Being honest about your own mistakes – being vulnerable, acknowledging your mistakes and discussing them openly.
Authors: Tenneile Manenti, Rachel Shan, Manfred Ng, Deloitte Risk Advisory.
Firth-Cozens, J. & Mowbray, D. (2001). Leadership and the quality of care. Quality in Health Care 10(2), 3-7.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M. & Stephenson, D., 2015. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Asosciation for Psychological Science, 10(2).
Sarros, J. C., Cooper, B. K., & Santora, J. C. (2008). Building a climate for innovation through transformational leadership and organizational culture. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 15(2).