Common management issues during Covid19 and how to handle them

Over the past six weeks I’ve coached lots of middle and senior managers. Many of these have been ad-hoc, one-off sessions, as an organisational response to supporting managers in the midst of the pandemic. Others have been a continuation of coaching relationships that were already in place but the focus has shifted, again, due to the needs which have emerged due to the pandemic.

There have been common themes across the sessions. It hasn’t mattered what the sector is, or the level of management someone is in. It seems the pandemic has been a unifying factor for managers and leaders in the UK and beyond.

I know many managers won’t have access to coaching or other forms of one-to-one support, which is why I thought it would be helpful to write a post which not only sets out the common issues (and hopefully, help you feel a little less alone) but ideas to help you mitigate these.

Issues around getting the balance right

“Provide too much guidance and a team will start to rely on it and leadership will become a bottleneck for decision-making. Provide too little and things devolve into anarchy.”                   – PAUL JARVIS –

We all have certain needs in relation to our work and Self-determination Theory suggests these needs are:

  1. A need to BELONG – this comes as a result of being a valued member of the team and organisation.
  2. A need to feel COMPETENT and EFFECTIVE – this comes as a result of people growing and developing their skills in response to the challenges they face at work.
  3. A need for AUTONOMY and CONTROL – this happens when people can control their working environment and be satisfied that the work they’re doing is in line with their personal values and professional integrity.

When all three are aligned, we’re more likely to do our best work and you play a role in making this alignment happen. Why not use the three needs as a checklist to ask yourself:

  • Am I creating time and space for people to connect and support each other in meaningful ways during the pandemic?
  • Am I focusing as much on learning and growth in one-to-ones as I am on the tasks that need to be done?
  • Am I getting the balance of management right – not too much, not too little? How do I know?

This last bullet point is crucial. A lot of the managers I’ve been working with have been worried about being micro-managers. While this level of introspection is good, it’s important not to veer too far to the other extreme of what I call laissez faire management. Victor Lipman calls it under-management and says it is typified through:

“Weak performance management, a tendency to avoid conflicts with employees, and generally lackluster accountability. As the name suggests, there’s just not quite enough management being done—and results often suffer as a result. But under-management can often fly under the radar because the managers who have these tendencies aren’t necessarily incompetent; on the contrary, they often know their business well, are good collaborators, and are well-liked.”

Caroline Webb, in her book How to have a good day, goes on to say:

“ …if we’re trying to equip other people to do their best work, we should strike a balance that falls somewhere between micromanaging the heck out of the situation and delegating it so completely that we relinquish all control”.

With this in mind, it can be helpful to simply ask each of your direct reports if they’re getting the right level of support from you. Don’t make things harder for yourself by trying to guess or making assumptions.

Issues around communication and engagement

Quality over quantity: After analysing 150 studies of nearly 10,000 teams, researchers found that communication had a significant impact on team performance. Specifically, the study found that quality had a bigger positive impact than quantity and that teams where people really knew each other had better communication and hence, better performance.

A big test of quality is the move to virtual team meetings for many. The trap that I’ve seen lots of people fall into is to simply treat it as an exact proxy of the face-to-face team meetings. It isn’t.

In his book, The surprising science of meetings, Steve Rogelberg suggests that perception of quality can be exaggerated dependent on our role. In particular, he says:

“…we found that the amount of participation or involvement in meetings correlated positively with perceptions of meeting effectiveness and satisfaction. In other words, if you talk a lot, you are more likely to think the meeting experience was a good one. Well, guess who typically talks the most in meetings? The leader.”

Steve goes on to suggest that meeting leaders regularly ask for feedback on how they’re doing. Here are the questions you can ask:

  • What am I not doing so well as the meeting leader (need to stop doing)?
  • What should I start doing that I am not currently doing?
  • What am I doing well as the meeting leader (need to keep doing)?

This has been such a key issue for many of the managers I’ve been working with that I developed a checklist to help them. You can download the checklist HERE.

Adapt the message: Two experimental studies looked at how goals can best be communicated by leaders. The findings suggest that distance (both hierarchical and geographical) between a leader and their employees can have an impact on how a message is received. In particular, the researchers found:

  • Desirable, or aspirational, messaging such as “We will win this battle together” was more effective on those who demonstrated high construal level (thinking in abstract). This kind of messaging was also more effective when used by leaders who were further away from employees, either hierarchically or geographically, such as a chief executive speaking to front-line key workers.
  • Feasible, or practical, messaging such as “You can help us by wearing your PPE at all times” was more effective on those who demonstrated low construal level (thinking in practical terms). This kind of messaging had a higher impact when used by those who were closer to workers hierarchically or geographically, i.e. line managers.

Keep things simple: When working in a crisis situation, particularly one as prolonged as this pandemic, it’s even more important to keep communication brief, to the point and simple. When messaging becomes too complex, there is a heightened danger of going wrong. For example, one study which tracked more than 1,000 restaurant inspections of 289 restaurants in Santa Monica, California, found more than 80,000 instances of rule compliance and noncompliance, including repeated violations, over the course of three years. The researchers found that the greater complexity in rules and regulations, the greater the chances that businesses would violate those rules.

George Whitesides, an eminent scientist, talks about the Psychology of Simple, in his TED talk. The three elements of simple are:

  1. Make it predictable – easy to understand
  2. Make it accessible– open, honest and backed up with research
  3. Make it a building block – builds on existing and understood concepts

And one way to test this is, again, by simply asking your team members if they understand.

Issues around stress and well-being

The importance of sleep: Many of the managers I’ve worked with in the past six weeks have talked about struggling to sleep, with some regularly checking their phones throughout the night (or day, if they work a night shift).

In one study, 168 people filled out a diary three times a day over the course of five working days. They also responded to surveys examining quality of sleep and workload. The researchers found a reciprocal relationship between mindfulness, workload, sleep quality and fatigue. Key findings included:

  • The ability to be mindful at work is reliant on switching off from work the previous day which, in turn, can help us get a good night’s sleep. The researchers also make the important point that mindfulness is not only down to the individual. Organisations have a part to play and should regularly review work environments and workload.
  • When we don’t detach from work and work-related thoughts creep in to our personal time, this can hinder us getting a good night’s sleep.
  • When we don’t get a good night’s sleep, we feel more fatigued and hence, less able to be mindful at work.

When we don’t get sufficient quality sleep, this impacts out ability to make good decisions, particularly under pressure. In extreme circumstances, it can lead to fatalities. In her book, Wilful Blindness, Margaret Heffernen describes an investigation into power plant explosion, where many people died, and where the US Chemical Safety Board surmised,

“It is common for a person experiencing fatigue to be more rigid in thinking, have greater difficulty responding to changing or abnormal circumstances, and take longer to reason correctly.”

A few tactics that have helped some of the managers I’ve been coaching:

  • Switch off email, WhatsApp and text alerts before going to bed: If there is an emergency, someone will call you. Believe me, as someone who has worked in crisis situations, you won’t be contacted by email if something has gone disastrously wrong.
  • Having a routine before bed: This can include drinking a warm, soothing drink. Listening to a guided meditation. Listening to an audiobook with a soothing voice.
  • Write it down: Get any remaining thoughts, niggles, questions, to-do’s and ideas into a notebook by the side of your bed. I equate this to freeing up your brain into a USB so it can power down properly for the night.

The importance of switching on: One study suggests that reattaching to work is as important as detaching from work. The findings suggest that employees who mentally reattach to work in the morning are more engaged at work. But how do we do this when, for some, they are working at home and there is little time and space between switching between home-mode and work-mode. Well, the same study found that planning and mentally simulating the upcoming workday triggered reattachment. In particular, things to think about during reattachment were:

  • Things that are likely to happen during the day
  • The tasks that need to be done
  • Any potential challenges that might occur
  • The support and resources they might need to accomplish their goals.

This can be used as a checklist for daily team huddles, if you have these at the moment. Some managers have now switched to daily huddles of between 10 and 20 minutes. Key is to keep a huddle focused and to remember that,

“…the huddle is about the team members communicating with one another, pulling together, learning together, and seeking ways to support each other.” – Steve Rogelberg

Take a break: A lot of managers have been talking to me about feeling guilty if they take any kind of break at the moment. Even if it’s five minutes to make a cup of tea. If this is you, then you might be interested in one study which found within-day work breaks significantly reduced tiredness and negative emotions, while increasing positive emotions. Examples of within-day work breaks that helped aid recovery included relaxation activities (e.g. nap), eating a meal, social activities (e.g. FaceTime call with family member) and cognitive activities (e.g. reading a book). The researchers go on to suggest that managers role model by taking breaks to recover, thereby creating the norm and acceptability of work-day breaks. These don’t have to be big breaks. Micro-breaks can help too. One manager I’m working with, running highly-pressurised, front-line teams, now splits up her day with 5-10 minute micro-breaks where:

  • Meditation and stretching first, before checking and responding to emails
  • Having a cup of coffee in the garden (if it’s sunny) mid-morning
  • Doing a 10-minute HIIT workout early afternoon
  • Listening to an audio book early evening

Issues around problem-solving and decision-making

Beware groupthink: This is something that has come up a few times in coaching calls. Virtual team meetings can make it more difficult to enable participation and engagement. If a group of people needs to make a decision, such as whether to re-open a service or not, groupthink can cause them to follow someone who deviates from the best decision for the sake of maintaining harmony. If a strong personality in the group insists their decision is the right one, other members can easily be persuaded to agree with them. Irving Janis, the originator of the concept of groupthink, came up with GroupThink Law which says that the more friendly and esprit de corps there is among team members, the greater the danger that different ideas will be replaced by groupthink. And when groupthink occurs, it’s far more likely to lead to irrational and dehumanising decisions.

One way you can mitigate against groupthink is to have a devil’s advocate role. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that just knowing that there is a dissenting voice is enough to induce different ideas that yield better judgement. In Wilful Blindness, Margaret Heffernen suggests that the devil’s advocate role should be rotated each team meeting to avoid the role holder falling into the trap of conformity and groupthink. Questions the role holder could ask include:

  • What information would materially change our decision?
  • What are the reasons not to do this?
  • Who benefits most from this decision? And who is harmed by it?

Before, during and after: In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle gives the example of the US Navy Seals and their before- and after-action review. To facilitate a good team discussion about intended action the before-action review asks:

  • What are our intended results?
  • What challenges can we anticipate?
  • What have we or others learned from similar situations?
  • What will make us successful this time?

The after-action review, once the decision has been implemented, asks:

  • What were our intended results?
  • What were our actual results?
  • What caused our results?
  • What will we do the same next time?
  • What will we do differently?

During the discussion itself, giving people time to think on their own is crucial. Researchers found teamwork is great, but only if we get a chance to step away and do our own thinking. The study, involving more than 300 people, found that interrupting problem-solving teamwork with breaks for individual reflection boosted the chance of finding the best answer, at least for complex problems. This is where platforms like Zoom are helpful as you can have breakout rooms for team members to step into. The alternative, if using a different platform, is to get everyone to switch to mute and videos off and give a set amount of time for thinking around a decision or issue.

At the heart of these issues, and the way to overcome them, is remembering you don’t have to have all the answers. The most powerful thing any manager can ask in a team meeting or a one-to-one, even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, is ‘What do you think?’

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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