If you are a corporate leader leading talented women and men, let's reflect from where we started-off this fiscal year.
We started with a sudden lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Worries about business continuity started. Revenues dipped. Profits dropped or even vanished. You did your pep-talks with your people. We tried banging thalis and lighting candles. Then we zoomed and teamed and skyped enthusiastically for unbearably long hours in our quest to "perform" and to act as if all of us had our "disaster recovery plan".
The town halls via AVMs, the kumbayas, and the mouthing of platitudes are passe now. Taking stock of these "work behaviour" after 9 months of WFH (working from home), we despair; we are tired. Most of us are suffering from the daily digital marathon. And there is no end in sight. (just try physically running a half-marathon daily). Most of us don't want to go back to the past ways, now that we have proved that WFH/remote-working is possible at scale. We believe we are well on our way to the new normal - however cliched it might sound.
Past few months saw the sharpest contraction of manufacturing activity since 1979, falling credit growth, core sector contraction, and millions of our fellow citizens migrating back to their native places in search of hope and succour. And companies both big and small quietly started laying-off people across the board. Then came a sharp contraction in GDP by nearly a quarter, and then the green offshoots of the economy bouncing back.
In unprecedented crisis time like this, true leaders emerge. A crisis sifts leaders from the bravados. The challenge that good leaders would take on is to lead from the front, especially when none of us know what lies on the other side, or when and how we would get there.
Do Leaders know how to lead in the COVID-19 context?
Being a student of the "leadership" concept, both as a practitioner and a constant-learner, nothing that we have done so far has prepared most leaders to lead in this strange and unfamiliar COVID-19 world. It will be a tough time for them personally and they should not shy away from working with relevant help for them to navigate this mire. It is truly lonely at the top (the moreyou are surrounded by people, the lonelier you feel).
Purpose and values
Every organisation has its 'values' proudly displayed digitally and physically and in every conceivable way. These values ("customer-centricity" being an often-repeated phrase but poorly practiced) are very often a description of attitudes and behaviours that promote businesses, in most cases synonymous with sales. The cursory nod to the employees often finds its place in values as well.
Most CHROs & CMOs ensure the prolific posturing of these messaging. Town halls alone won't help. This is no longer enough. This crisis has brought to the fore what we have known, but chosen to ignore for the longest time - businesses cannot be built on the back of social inequality and environmental degradation.
Also Read: How Productive is Work From Home?
While many boardrooms and corner offices have witnessed discussions on the subject of ESG (Environment, Social, Governance), most organisations have failed to take substantive action on these issues. The whole subject of a purpose aligned to these objectives has so far not found wide adoption in India Inc. The accountability of this gap has to rest with the leaders.
It is in fact the purpose that must guide all decision-making for leaders and organisations. This will enable them to evolve better strategies, remain true to these plans, and thus build sustainable organisations for the post-COVID-19 world. This will also help leaders build a strong and lasting emotional connect and alignment between the organisation and its employees, which is very critical in these times of financial, physical, and social crisis. A clearly articulated purpose, owned and adapted to every role and every employee of the company is in fact a key driver of business sustainability.
Decisive vs democratic leadership:
One common thread running through every report, newscast, political or economic forecast is that we simply do not know what to do in this COVID world. "Unprecedented" is the mot du jour.
The "Covid Leadership Playbook" simply does not exist.
Yet instinctively, in the context of fear and uncertainty, employees will look to leaders for direction. Events are moving at such a pace that it is no longer an option for them to postpone action. Late reactions could prove to be far worse.
In the WFH scenario, "the Indian standard time" behaviour has been corrected; call times, agendas, and desired outcomes are all tightly defined. Meetings can no longer "run over" by an hour or so allowing leaders to hear every voice and discuss to death. The option of water cooler conversations to create stakeholder buy-in no longer exists. Nor does the 'walk-about' leadership style that many leaders have perfected over the years to build connections with people and teams. Long processes of 'internal socialisation" are no longer possible given the speed of action currently required.
Therefore, at this time, leaders need to move away from a democratic leadership style to a more decisive style. Unfortunately, this is also a very difficult time to make this shift because it is a time when employees are in an emotionally fragile state. They need empathy and emotional sustenance from their leaders.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is not the touchy-feely leader who will succeed in these times but the one who is decisive and keeps people focussed on performance and meeting hard goals. This will generate real confidence that the organisation and thus individuals will survive and thrive in the future, which in turn will create the deep emotional sustenance that leaders are seeking to build.
Focus on social connections and individual context
We are used to working in the 'workplace' and our homes are our sanctuaries designed to fulfill family and societal needs. The 'workplace' gave us a sense of social identity and space to use during waking hours (remember the ritual of handing out visiting cards?). No longer do many of us even have a designated workspace.
In fact, the physical and therefore mental work context of every individual is different, while performance expectations remain the same or have increased significantly. There are many roadblocks to performance in this scenario, particularly since most of us do not have the physical or mental bandwidth to fully focus on work from home.
Children, elders, spouses, pets, housework - all share our physical and mental workspace. This can be absolutely overwhelming and leads to a general feeling of 'you don't understand what it is like for me', and consequently a feeling of isolation and depression. It is difficult to remain focussed for long, in this environment.
Human beings are intrinsically social beings and therefore draw motivation and learnings from being part of groups of people. Neuroscience tells us that the neurochemical balance of human beings shifts when working in isolation.
The social distancing protocols currently in place are likely to continue for a very long time, even post lockdown easing. Consequently, an important intrinsic motivator has disappeared from the work equation. Skoffee (coffee over Skype), Zoffee (coffee over Zoom), or Toffee (coffee over team) can facilitate discussions and meetings required to move work forward but cannot replace the deep connections that physical proximity bestows.
These are in fact critical enablers of not just performance, but indeed of the mental health of people. Social interactions have more to them than video meetings, the way they are currently done.
The use of technology to keep the business going is what everybody is already doing, but are leaders thinking of "how to mitigate the loss of social connections that form the fabric of their organisation"? Are they cognisant of the different individual contexts of people? And what are they doing about it? As WFH becomes the new (continued) normal, these are the issues that leaders will have to think about deeply and take action on, decisively.
Neurons, people, performance
In these very troubled times, leaders will experience never-before levels of stress and challenge. They will have to show great personal resilience, foresight, and equanimity to emerge strong on the other side. To do this they need all the help that they can get.
Cells within the nervous system, called neurons, communicate with each other in unique ways. Neuron is a basic working unit of the brain, a specialised cell designed to transmit information to other nerve cells, muscles, or gland cells. The brain is what it is because of the structural and functional properties of interconnected neurons.
A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires when a human acts and when he/she observes the same action performed by another. So, in effect, the neuron "mirrors" the behaviour of others by "observing". Mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. They are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions like empathy. Neuroscience theory of "mirror neurons" suggests positive benefits of social interaction for teamwork - another holy grail of business leaders.
There are corporates that are already using neuroscience-based learning initiatives to help teams perform better, both at the individual as well as collective level. The outcomes are measurable and showcase higher efficiency of performance. It would be useful for leaders to use expert help to support their business, teams, individuals, and themselves; with differentiated solutions and not the conventional methods. These are the strategic investments that will help the organisation get through this period and sustain itself in the long run.
It is the right time now to use the scientific knowledge available and to move away from showmanship-led old people-practices. Leaders are those who make a positive difference. In this endeavour, they need to use every skillset, artistry, and science available to make an impact.
A microscopic bit of RNA, protein, and fat has brought mighty nations and global businesses to their knees and changed the world forever. Leaders and leadership will have to change as much, and as fast, to survive, and to scale up, in this COVID-impacted world.
(Srinath Sridharan is an independent markets commentator & Smita Affinwalla is a corporate advisor.)