Reflecting on COVID-19 and its extra-ordinary power to stop business as usual, a colleague recently said “You know deep down, we have all been calling for this.” Perhaps not exactly in this form, granted, but think about it. When was the last time you looked at the world, or yourself or your workplace and said either to yourself and someone else: This is madness it has to stop. Something has to shift. There has been a broad consensus for some time that we have to make a change. Few people have believed deep down that we’ve been on track. But it has been difficult to slow the momentum of our habits and dependencies – whether that be approval, fossil fuels, or continuous growth, long enough to enter the foyer of the new.
Enter COVID-19, a virus that has transgressed all the sacred cows that have maintained our social, political, relational and business structures, to bring us close to a complete stop. The virus that on one hand is leaving people fighting for air, is ironically allowing us breathing space.
Fear is contagious. …. So is trust.
If you have been into a supermarket over the past week you may well be asking yourself: What’s going on with people?
The supplies on the shelves are dwindling on a daily basis. That in itself is something we are not used to dealing with. It’s enough to set off our primitive survival mechanisms – already primed by COVID-19 and the recent bushfires.
Psychologically, shopping gives us an illusion of control. It alleviates the anxiety activated by uncertainty. In the absence of a clear understanding of what the next week or month looks like, at least we can shop, we can do something!
In the face of a flood we would fill sandbags. In response to the immediate threat of the bushfires, people expressed their concern by being on the firefighting frontline, through donating to others, organising community events and helping out in whatever ways they could. These activities not only expressed our care, they were a way of focussing the adrenalin that is stimulated in times of adversity.
From the moment I landed at the airport in January my phone began to make a strange sound. Ping, ping, ping, ping, ping. I vaguely recalled the sound, but I’d also never heard it before. At least not like this. The sounds I was hearing were the VicEmergency warnings for the 100km radius I had nominated as my watchzone. The days that followed my arrival back in Australia, were no different, endless high pitch warnings. My partner was permanently tuned to the ABC national broadcaster, that had taken on the role of constantly updating the community on fire warnings.
Anxiously waiting for the next news broadcast or emergency warning has been like being on a collective roller-coaster.
The catastrophic events of this summer are still unfolding and the strain in organisations across the country is palpable. As with most disasters, there are significant risks that go unnoticed in the madness of immediate survival. While leaders focus on getting the job done under often extreme circumstances, many of the hidden impacts and long-term consequences on the workforce and hence business viability are overlooked.
Having a clear focus on and providing mechanisms to contain the distress and anxiety coursing through most organisations at the moment, is important, particularly in an environment where containment hasn’t come from the nation’s leaders in the way we might have expected.
Australian communities are currently facing head on the crisis of unprecedented bushfires and drought. The processing of what we have experienced and what it tells us of a possible future to come, will go on for months and years to come. The experience of Australia's summer of 2020 has the capacity to unite us, it also has the capacity to tear us apart as we deal with fear, anxiety, anger and blame. In conversation with a friend from Bateman's Bay last night she spoke of the heightened emotion in community meetings, of heroism and courage and of the speed with which looting took place.
Many individuals are asking what can I do? As we see incredible ordinary leaders emerge it seems that we are on a tipping point between hopelessness and a call for focused and decisive action.
Australia is on fire, literally and has been for several months now. Yet we are confronted by the spectre of leaders minimising the deflecting dialogue around the causes of the unprecedented weather events taking place all around the world.
Several years ago I was in retreat with global leadership development practitioner Meg Wheatley. Meg was firmly of the view that the planet had reached its tipping point and that all that was now possible was to work toward creating pockets of humanity in a society increasingly under threat. It was a confronting experience. I didn’t and still don’t know whether Meg’s conclusion is accurate. There is something inherent within me that believes we can’t give up. Meg wasn’t asking us to give up though, instead she was stripping away what she described as the illusion of hope.
At some point, as a leader or manager you will have to provide performance feedback, handle complaints and manage grievances. Mastering the ability to give difficult feedback and keep dialog constructive and open is essential.
When asked to train managers in complaint handling recently, I prepared by exploring what helps individuals to engage with feedback and complaints. I also reflected on a powerful personal experience, that helped me understand just how difficult staying open to feedback can be.
Failure to communicate openly can be a real problem for teams and working relationships. In the absence of direct communication, indirect communication usually results. A culture of gossip, high unexplained staff turnover and widespread complaining to no-one in particular, can be signs your workplace is a little reticent when it comes to direct communication.
Have you ever given or received an apology that had a powerful and transformative impact? Of late we've been working with organisations committed to making full and wholehearted apologies.
A heartfelt apology can be relieving for all concerned. Acknowledging mistakes and wrongdoings supports healing and the restoration of relationships. When Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised in 2008 to Australian Aboriginals and members of the stolen generation, for the forced removal of children from their families and culture, his words held significance for the whole nation. Rudd spoke at the time about ‘removing a stain from the nation’s soul’.
The apology to the stolen generation was a long time coming - far too long. The trauma of many individuals and their families was prolonged by a lack of acknowledgement of their suffering. Events such as this and the mixed messages sent by many institutions in response to allegations of child sex abuse have been painful to witness.
“We Are An Organisation At War With Ourselves”
“We are an organisation at war with ourselves.” When a courageous leader expressed these words in a recent workshop the whole room paid attention. They were said without judgement. More as a sort of weather report or to bring me up to speed with the participants' current leadership challenges.
Succinctly and without any drama that leader had expressed their struggle in a way that was visceral and captured the lived experience of those in the room. He had not taken sides, instead he had presented a snapshot, that we might also think of as a view from the balcony.
He was not the most senior leader in the room, just the person ready at that moment to speak openly about what he really saw going on.
Being able to recognise and seize moments of cultural change like this is incredibly important. The cohort of leaders was fully present. The issue was alive for them. These are the moments in which culture change happens – if we are alert enough to recognise and seize them. And this was one of those opportunities...