How Leaders Can Manage Employees’ Divergent Emotional Reactions To Returning To The Office

by May 13, 2021Leadership

Many leaders have risen to their positions by getting things done, bucking up when necessary, and finding solutions when obstacles appear. That’s a very adaptive trait, especially during the chaos of the coronavirus epidemic, at every stage. As the number of vaccinated people increases and companies begin to call people back to an office environment, people will grapple with another change. Even welcome changes require people to adjust. Human beings – leaders included – tend to use prior experience as the basis for evaluations and decisions, even when it has few elements in common with the situation they are currently facing, a phenomenon known in psychology as the “saliency bias.” 

In my years of consulting – both as a clinician and a corporate psychologist – I have worked with leaders during the HIV epidemic, post-9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and highly disruptive company events, including mergers and acquisitions. Time and again, I’ve seen that people’s responses to events range widely – some are extremely dramatic, while others appear to be barely ruffled. Not everyone will behave the same amidst disruption and loss, and leaders need to flex in order to manage their employees’ varied reactions. Here are five things that leaders should keep in mind during this unusually chaotic period. 

First, expect changes in behavior. Some changes that leaders will see are noticeable but have a minor impact that can be accommodated, especially in the short term. Suppose the change is both disruptive and sustained over time–like missing deadlines, meetings, or not communicating – it needs to be addressed. Leaders need to be patient and empathic during this time and stay away from judging, diagnosing, interpreting, or labeling the changes they see in others. 

That’s because, while observation and checking in with people can be an invitation to talk, interpretations are almost always unwelcome and unproductive. For example, if a formerly productive and sharp colleague is slow to respond, talking with them is ok. A leader can say, “I notice that your responses aren’t as rapid-fire as in the past. I want you to know that this extraordinary circumstance is affecting us all. If there is anything about your work that you would like to change, temporarily, let’s talk about that.” Then, stop talking. Even if a leader thinks it might be helpful to express concern about anxiety, depression, moodiness, etc., it will most assuredly be perceived as intrusive. 

Second, do not over-rely on group communications and pep talks. Group calls can be beneficial and should be part of the routine, even if they have not been before. But even when leaders ensure meetings are psychologically safe, very few people will tell you as much about their circumstances in a group setting as they will privately. Once a leader has a handle on the bandwidth of each person with whom they work closely, they can facilitate group discussions about how to make adjustments without people feeling exposed or embarrassed. 

Third, it is essential to understand that sometimes under stress, even capable leaders find it hard to focus on others. They may slide into conversational narcissism, where they’re so focused on themselves that they leave little room for others to talk, don’t listen well, or create enough opportunity for others to speak.  Leaders who can’t be quiet not only take up time, but their dominance says to others, “I have the answers.” 

Avoiding this is far more likely if the leader is clear about the purpose of meetings and is explicit about what they want to hear from others. This cues the group to participate and help stop the leader or anyone else from dominating.   

Fourth, praise ingenuity and adaptation, even if inelegant. Most people are marvels of resourcefulness and creativity – whether it’s hacking together new methods to communicate or new product offerings, nearly overnight. Some plans do not precisely reflect standard operating procedure because things aren’t ordinary and cannot be, for now. Leaders need to adjust their expectations to allow people to adapt. Where practical, focus on objectives rather than tactics. That’s because the creativity leaders see now can be of use long term if they shine a light on it. Helping others see the value in what they create and how they did it can significantly benefit the future. 

Fifth, recognize that the energy for productivity and innovation is partly due to novelty – and it will fade. Joanne Irving, a clinical psychologist, and consultant to business leaders, points out that part of the surge in some professionals’ productivity during the early part of the lockdown was due to the effect of novelty. Just as disasters are followed by a tidal wave of help that will fade over time, leaders can expect that their energy level, as well as others’, will waiver. As people return to their offices, a similar swell of enthusiasm is to be expected, but will subside. Recognizing that people will, at times, be highly productive, but less so at others, can help leaders manage their own reactions. 

While leaders can expect that some people will have experienced loss and perhaps significant distress due to the pandemic, most will recover from it when treated with empathy and patience. Even those who seem thrilled to back in an office and with colleagues, will have a period of adjustment. Using the five strategies above, leaders can create an environment most likely to support all employees during this trying time.

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