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From Crisis to Opportunity…

Ella NilaKanthi Ford explores why a new kind of leadership is needed to help organisations move forward safely in these changing and challenging times.

We’re in a new era – at least it feels like it.  The entire business world can press its reset button.  Covid-19 or not, a clear pattern is emerging.  People are now aware of some of the risks in dealing with viruses but is this new mindset aligned to the risks pre-Covid-19?

Now, closely behind the pandemic, follows the next wave of disruption—the biggest economic shock since the 1940s – and it’s headed our way.  This will not just be an economic shockwave. Like lockdown, it will drive change in everyone’s behaviours -workforce and customers alike.

Leading the change

At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, Tribe Culture Change carried out research with over 200 individuals from different organisations to write their ‘Crisis Culture Insight.’  The key issues raised fell into four categories – Trust, Risk Mindset, Resilience and Engagement.

“The challenge from a health, safety and wellbeing perspective is to make sure that the culture either remains strong or continues to develop so that those behaviours are the right ones throughout the crisis period. The risk is that because the crisis is creating significant distraction for the organisation and those who work for it, there is an increase in potential for negative health, safety and wellbeing outcomes.”
Tribe Crisis Culture Insight, 2020

We humans are all wired in similar ways; in times of change, people gravitate to the safe and certain – the things they know best and understand.  At present, this may well constitute resorting to business practises and leadership styles pre-Covid-19.  If you keep doing the same things, you will keep getting the same results.  In this new era, to meet the combined business and safety challenges, it’s time to reboot the culture.

Five-point plan

To embrace both Covid-19 guidelines and existing safety issues, business leaders should consider proactively shifting the workforce mindset toward the future safety culture.  For optimum success in leading this shift as well as improving business performance, there are five key ingredients in any recipe:

1. Transition from focus on profit, to focus on business purpose and align with safety

It’s time for leaders to take a broader view and work with their wider teams.  Consider what is most important now?  What is missing?  What are the worst outcomes?  What are the best outcomes?  Then, use all those answers to ascertain what might occur from now and how you may influence it differently.  It is important to understand your broad direction of travel – the ‘big idea’ or goal which you can stand for in the new future.  By carrying out this exercise, all these uncertainties will be contained in smaller, manageable boxes and provide early signals for success or failure.

A safety leader’s job is more than dealing with risks, uncertainties or anticipating and navigating alterations to the business.  The safety leader must encourage adoption of initiatives by linking all work activities to an organisation’s purpose – its reason for being.  This will also link into the human desire to be part of something bigger than themselves.  It is not what safety leaders accomplish; it is what they cause others to achieve.  So, a clarity of future purpose will be essential.

‘Trust has been a critical feature of a lot of the early research. The degree of trust an employee has in an organisation often depends on the strength of the culture and, by implication, the strength of the leadership.’
Tribe Crisis Culture Insight, 2020

2. Shift from business hierarchies to developing people networks

Pre-Covid business hierarchies discourage engagement. Despite the shift in working patterns created by Covid-19, right now people will be the instruments for, and potentially the barriers to, change.  Amid uncertainty generated by a crisis, leaders often feel an urge to limit authority to those at the top, with a small team making the big decisions behind virtual closed doors.  I have heard from numerous companies where this has been the case.  Senior leaders too busy in their daily huddles to actively engage with their teams.

Unfortunately, it is then deemed appropriate to cascade information requiring actions downwards and outwards.  This deprives your workforce of any real commitment in the proposed actions.  It inevitably leads to communication breakdowns, potential disaffection and lack of involvement.  So, leaders should reject the hierarchical model that they thought comfortable and encourage flatter organisations.  Seek out debate with many more stakeholders and hear their different views.

3. Move from behaviours and processes that control to behaviours and processes that empower

Organisational unity and safety culture acceleration occurs when organisations create internal tribes.  Any group of twenty to one hundred people is a tribe.  Each will have a leader who enhances the group.  Every single leader should then own the engagement, stimulation, and development of their people.  These tribal leaders must be careful in the language they employ.  They should use words and statements to elevate conversations, enhance capabilities, and basically, build commitment around a common cause.  This creates a highly effective, more connected safety culture, where all employees can have greater impact.

In pre-Covid-19 ‘business as usual’, successful managers knew how to say the right things, navigate the system, and manage messages so that people heard what they wanted to hear.  A different type of character is required for uncertain times.  People who stay calm, curious and flexible.  People who can make decisions, with the best interests of the organisation (not their careers) in mind.

‘‘Risk Mindset’ has been a really interesting feature of a lot of the early research. The degree to which individual attitudes, values and beliefs have been affected by the crisis has varied considerably and is dependent on quite a number of personal and organisational factors.’

Tribe Crisis Culture Insight, 2020

4. Adapt systems and control measures to be open to new processes

Pre-determined policies, procedures and programmes expect strict adherence in every circumstance.  In times of uncertainty, processes may also be misdirected and cease to serve the organisation.  Post-Covid, with the adaptation to greater use of technology, businesses will be operating at higher speeds.  Bias decision-making toward speed and encourage people to challenge existing procedures if they are not fit for purpose (instead of breaking the rules).

5. Finally add transparency, share and communicate widely again and again

When making the move to empower others, don’t just pick the usual suspects to lead your processes—not everyone is cut out to lead in uncertain times.  Most of us basically want to believe that people are like us.  That their belief systems, values, and subsequent behaviours reflect their own moral compass.  When this gets challenged, it can cause more imbalance than most people are ready to acknowledge.  Choose the people who are passionate about safety as well as the business.

‘Out of all the themes being discussed in relation to health, safety and wellbeing and the crisis, one of the most significant is mental health and resilience.’
Tribe Crisis Culture Insight, 2020

Social interaction is central to our everyday lives.  In times of Covid-19, our ability to flexibly navigate and learn from social interactions and develop social relationships has been severely impaired.  So many people miss the opportune chats in the workplace.  Despite every digital device and process, leaders will need to go back to basics.  Make emotional connections with others in their tribe to make things happen.

‘There has been an increase in some communications challenges however, especially where employee populations have been divided or restricted due to social distancing regulations.’
Tribe Crisis Culture Insight, 2020

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

How a leader communicates and interacts internally will determine their culture.  An electronic missive is not the solution to being proactive about sharing the message.  Communication breakdowns and misunderstandings can lead to, what may be, tragic consequences.  Current reporting statistics may paint a false picture of reality and lead to future complacency.  For instance, there may be less traffic incidents reported as there are less vehicles on the road at present.

‘For many organisations there has been a reduction in the reporting of accidents and incidents through the crisis so far. For some organisations they believe this is due to an enhanced attitude towards risk and therefore a genuine reduction in accidents. For other organisations this is because individuals are being distracted by other things and represents an increase in risk.’
Tribe Crisis Culture Insight, 2020

Your business is a network of connections.  Use language to seek and offer support.  Use every method available and communicate repeatedly across all media.  Above all, take the time to speak to people in your teams.  Discuss with others to make sure they understand.

‘There is a concern that when activity does start to return to previous pre-crisis levels, the risk is going to be very significant. For some, the concern is that individuals will have ‘switched off’ from previous health and safety focuses in the interim and the working environment is likely to be very different for many.  For other organisations, there is a concern that people won’t want to return at all due to fears around the virus and a lack of trust in the organisational approach.’
Tribe Crisis Culture Insight, 2020

Heading towards a safer future, organisations will need more communication, greater emotional intelligence, as well as agility.  Wherever your business might be heading, stay safe and optimise the combined resources of your workforce.

About Kanthi (Ella NilaKanthi) Ford

Lead Consultant

Kanthi is a highly skilled and experienced leadership coach, culture and behaviour expert. She has a fantastic ability to engage people and has delivered many complex culture change programmes for Tribe clients. An acclaimed author, her most recent book is called ‘Bias Impacts: How Culture and Diversity Affects the Leadership Journey’.

Specialisms: Diversity, equity and inclusion, Leadership and employee engagement, Behaviour change psychology, Global delivery

Industry experience: Aviation and Aerospace, Agri-business, Agri-food, Banking and Fintech, Construction, Energy (renewables, oil, gas, hydrogen and shale), Facilities, Healthcare, Manufacturing, Pharmaceutical, Rail, Retail, Technology, Telecoms, Utilities

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