Dr. Paul Cummins, Managing Director SeaChange Ltd.
As a behavioural psychologist who supports frontline businesses with their thinking and management around risk, this current COVID-19 pandemic is shockingly new. Even though we’re confident businesses and organisations can and will overcome it, the unfortunate truth is some leaders and businesses will not be so resilient.
To manage the inherent risk and fear that COVID-19 presents, organisations need to quickly move past the ‘shock’ of the pandemic to active control measures. The sooner we can normalise this new hazard and act rationally to manage the associated risks, the more prepared our businesses will be over the long term.
Normalising COVID-19: the importance of Routine Control Measures:
We all constantly live with risk in our lives. We take risks every time we drive our cars, board a plane, go for a swim. Employees face a wide variety of risks depending on the sector they work in – from a Deli staff member who faces burns and cuts, to a heavy-industry operator who may face fatal risks such as crush and amputation on a daily basis. But workplaces have learned how to control these risks by implementing routine control measures (i.e. an action or activity that is taken to prevent, eliminate or reduce the impact of an identified hazard).
Starving the Beast: the importance of Safety Behaviours:
No matter what industry we work in, the most important employee control is how we behave. The COVID-19 virus is a biohazard that poses a significant risk because of its ability to spread quickly and to compromise the health of at-risk people in our communities. Our nation has acted in unison to establish routine control measures – a suite of new behaviours each person can/must follow in order to control the spread. I’m sure by now you are very familiar with these safe behaviour controls, but I want to reinforce the importance of our accountability to behave in a safe way, especially for employees operating at the frontline. Never before in living memory has our behaviour as an individual impacted society to such a degree.
Current Workplace Psychology:
The critical focus of attention within the workplace for both employers and employees is on survival: safety and security for ourselves, our loved ones and wider society. Our natural psychological response to such a ‘threat’ is fear and our motivation is to stay safe. Right now, to alleviate workplace fear, it is paramount that senior and frontline leaders in essential services focus on being effective and authentic. This is the critical control measure that all frontline staff need right now.
Effective Leadership during the COVID-19 Crisis:
A crisis requires both leadership and management from employers and employees alike. The Harvard Business Review reports that ‘crises are most often over-managed and under-led’. So as frontline business leaders, how can we ensure that we lead both effectively and authentically? I have outlined 4 tips for leading your staff and co-workers effectively during the COVID-19 crisis below:
1. Small Steps – together!
COVID-19 has revealed how large groups of people can become compliant and accepting of their small but vital role. Managing their own simple but vital behaviours (handwashing, coughing etiquette, etc.) can make the difference between winning or losing. The organisation and your team must believe their simple contribution can fuel more confidence in the bigger goal. Truly a lesson to carry with us when we are all back at work.
2. Leading vs Managing
Senior leaders must resist the urge to jump in and firefight at the operational frontline, despite the desire to do so. Instead, understand that the intrinsic value effective senior leaders can bring is the ability to take the long view. Leadership decisions today can be the difference between having motivated staff or not when operations resume.
3. Direction vs Control
Organisations are being impacted by unpredictable macro drivers; every day new data means we must shift our thinking. It is vital to stop aiming for control, and a fixation on this can hurt the organisation in the long term. Instead the target is to establish structure and direction. Your employees need certainty in times like this – not more control – and order is where staff know what is expected of them, and what they can expect of others.
4. Your People are your Most Important Resource
More than ever before, given the COVID-19 pandemic, your staff and their response to this crisis is critical. Personal safety behaviours and the routine adoption of these for the foreseeable is the most important factor in controlling coronavirus. Effective leaders know that their human resources are the lifeblood of their organisation’s resilience, so communicate well with your people, support them and work with them to ensure you all come out the other end together and stronger. To conclude, there is no doubt that this time is extremely trying for us all, especially those working on the frontline. But as we continue to behave safely, implement control measures and safety routines, and lead authentically, there is a good chance that our businesses will come out of this crisis far more resilient than we were on Friday March 13th 2020.