“If I’m threatened by something new, how can I provide a safe space for the people I lead?”
Dr. Christine Lawther, instructor of the Conscious Leadership and Team Management certificate, cites this as the key question for leaders attempting to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conscious leadership, she explains, “is all about being intentional about how you interact with people, as well as being mindful of the experience you provide for others.” But a public health crisis that keeps many workers away from the office challenges this directive. How can leaders be mindful of how their decisions are received when typical cues like tone and body language get lost in a virtual environment?
The answer, Lawther says, lies in adhering to a servant leadership model. “Leading isn’t about maintaining hierarchy, but uplifting and supporting others,” she says, urging leaders to focus on staying engaged and fostering a strong culture.
Lawther’s career-spanning focus on leadership has given her unique insight. “Having real-world leadership experience combined with my research has helped me not only learn about a number of leadership theories, but experience organizational challenges firsthand,” she says. “By having the opportunity to conduct research on emotional intelligence and virtual leadership, I was able to use a rigorous academic lens to understand leadership best practices.”
She shares practicable advice on providing a secure and productive virtual workplace during times of change and uncertainty.
Provide a balance of support and autonomy
Transitioning work dynamics—like an office going virtual—can be difficult for both leaders and those they supervise. “Leaders want to check in all the time, but employees don't want to be micromanaged,” Lawther says. “Demonstrate that you are there to provide a sense of stability and community, while also create the space for employees to manage their own work independently.”
She advises against constant check-ins. Instead, “it’s important for leaders to set up a framework: every so many days, we'll check in. This creates a sense of autonomy while maintaining structure.”
Model good behavior
“People model what you do, not what you say,” Lawther says. “From a neurological standpoint, the human species is wired to identify, observe, and model behaviors exhibited by the leader of the pack. One’s actions can be uplifting or detrimental, and it’s important for a leader to be cognizant of their own behaviors, especially during a challenging time.”
Modeling good behavior, Lawther says, is of high importance to leaders—a task that becomes infinitely more complicated in a virtual environment during a time of great uncertainty. The mindful solution, Lawther says, lies partly with self-awareness and partly with a familiar slogan.
“Being intentional means trying to understand what you can control versus what you can't,” she says. “For instance, you cannot control no longer being able to go into work and sitting with team members, but you can control engaging different mechanisms to stay in touch. Leaders need to understand how they are dominantly reacting to change because people are going to mirror that, often unconsciously.” People look to leaders even more so during times of crisis, and so it is essential that leaders are intentional with their actions so that their employees follow suit.
Once a leader has identified what they can control and what they cannot, Lawther says, it’s time to start thinking about drawing boundaries and maintaining positive energy as a means of not becoming overwhelmed when confronted with stress and uncertainty. “Some people are very social and recharge by talking to others, while others need to take a walk or block time out on their calendar so they can have a private moment,” she says. “Mindful leaders recognize when and how to care for themselves so that they can be in a position to fully benefit their team.” These leaders are not only comfortable to transparently share how they manage stress, but also encourage their staff to do the same. Doing this results in everyone bringing their best self to their job, even if that occurs while also navigating a time of uncertainty.
Maintain an open dialogue
Lawther’s approach to her leadership classes prioritizes openness between students. “My students come from different industries and have different levels of experience and educational backgrounds. We work to foster a safe environment where people can respectfully disagree and offer different perspectives,” she says.
Lawther finds this sort of environment helpful in exposing different perspectives and mindsets—perspectives important to effective leadership. “When you become a conscious leader, you become much more aware of different perspectives and become willing to challenge your own mindset. Being comfortable with challenging yourself is a vital skill to have as we consider the what the future will demand of strong leadership. Leaders should be asking for feedback. We all have our blind spots and being granted insights to help make oneself better can truly be a gift.”
In addition to its personal utility, a leader who considers other points of view creates a trusting environment—a necessity in turbulent times. “People may be having personal hardships if their once stable routine has been transformed with the complexity of managing children or multiple adults working from home in close quarters. The goal is to create an authentic experience where an employee and a leader can come together to talk about what they’re struggling with and feel okay with sharing that vulnerability. This is the hallmark of stepping beyond a transactional relationship and demonstrating genuine interest about a person’s wellbeing overall.
“Ultimately, this can create great relationships, which domino into great performance.”