The last few years have seen an increase in uncertainty in the world around us. The way we live our lives has changed due to Covid-19 and other world events, such as the war in Europe and the cost-of-living crisis, to name only two.
This is directly impacting your capacity and the capacity of the people in your business to contribute their best.
You may think that you know how your employees are coping, but what you see is only a tiny fragment of what is going on in their lives today. You know the standard answer when you ask the question, “How are you?” The response is almost always, “I’m fine.” But most people are not fine. No one is the same person they were at the start of 2022 and most definitely not the same people they were at the start of 2020! Our views of the world and what’s important have shifted.
As I’ve written before, “When a shift occurs, your perception of the world is fundamentally altered; you cannot un-live the experience.” My last article listed a few potential causes of these kinds of shifts, including trauma, grief and even financial stress. Research has “determined that financial stress [is] negatively related to organizational commitment and [is] positively associated with absenteeism.” There is a mental health crisis looming, and the waitlists to get access to professional help are getting longer. This is compounding the problem and will have a knock-on effect on businesses globally.
So where do you start as a leader? Most leaders are not trained counselors or coaches, but providing support doesn’t need to be hard. It starts and ends with trust.
First, you need to be aware there is a problem, yet your employees are unlikely to bring it up unless they are at a crisis point because it can be uncomfortable or embarrassing. You may notice unexplained behavioral changes, but how do you bring it up without making it worse?
We need to let go of the fear of getting it wrong.
Leaders, you need to engage although it’s uncomfortable. Your employees will watch how you handle it, and ignoring something obvious will undermine their trust in you.
Most employees are scared of being labeled, rejected or passed over for a promotion if they do tell the truth. Telling you “I’m fine” is a protection mechanism often driven by a lack of trust. Let’s not fool ourselves; this kind of workplace retribution is still happening. Employees’ fears are valid, and so psychological safety is key to enabling your employees to speak up. Building trust is a process, and we can help this by intentionally building relationships.
As a leader, this is what you can do today:
• Check in regularly with your employees. Listen to what’s going on; show interest in what’s happening in their lives.
• Encourage open conversations. Some alternative check-in questions to “How are you?” include “What is challenging you most right now?” or “What’s important to you right now?” or “What are you focusing on right now?”
• Let them know they can ask you anything.
• Ask them how you can support them better.
• Share stories from your life that have changed your ambitions, or give an example of when you did not know how to deal with something and how you solved it. (Be aware of how you share; share something relatable to the employee that helps them understand that you are also human. Then go back to their story; remember, this is about them.)
• Create space during feedback rounds for questions like, “How are things changing in your life right now?”
• Ensure you have employee support programs set up so that you can offer employees immediate access to counseling and coaching services when needed.
Stay interviews can be another great way to gauge how your employees are feeling and how you can keep them engaged and motivated. Asking questions builds trust that you are interested in them. It helps you understand their needs better and can help you recognize the need to refocus the employee internally. This is especially important in high-knowledge industries that have long-term employees; otherwise you risk losing high-value employees who you could easily redeploy internally. Creating internal opportunities for an employee can support them when they need it most. If done well, it reignites employee engagement and commitment that would otherwise be lost.
This sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
There is an initial investment of time to discover your way of doing this; however, if you use these approaches regularly, then they become a habit. When this is done with the intention to be a better leader and to help create the environment your team needs to be at its best, then it’s a habit that your employees will appreciate. Your intention matters!
Warning: You also need to look after yourself. You do not need to take on your employee’s problems. You can help them in several ways when they are dealing with something big outside of work, but it is not your responsibility to solve the problem.
In summary, leaders must expand their conversational toolkits to be able to support—but not become overwhelmed by enabling—their teams during uncertain times.
Leaders, your people need you to create your own boundaries to support yourself and the space to listen and compassionately support your employees who are dealing with increasing stressors from the external environment.
The more you can help your employees feel like they belong and help them feel safe, the sooner you can be aware of any problems. As a leader, burying your head in the sand is no longer an option. We all need to step in to create inclusive environments where diverse teams can contribute boldly to achieving the team vision.
Remember that most of the problems around us today will be solved by innovative solutions in the coming years. If you and your business want to lead the way, then it’s time to redefine how you lead today to enable your team and your business to thrive.