In the midst of extreme disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is much adaptation that is constructive, hopeful and heartwarming. Most people are able to adjust and cope, even though they may be worried. However, that isn’t true for everyone and leaders have to contend with a range of reactions in colleagues and team members.
Leaders have a particular responsibility now, even though few could have imagined this scenario. While it is understandable that some people will feel tremendous anxiety that makes it difficult for them to cope, leaders can ill afford to allow them to behave in ways that undermine others. Leaders need to establish boundaries and address behaviors that are detrimental with as much intention and vigor as they provide direction, encouragement and support. Frequently, leaders sense when something is amiss but don’t always realize how significant their observations are until things get quite serious. One reason is that disruptors rarely announce themselves, they come in several disguises.
The multiple disguises of disruptors:
Virtually every organization has a few people who thrive on finding inconsistencies in what leaders say. They are the self-appointed auditors who leap on the opportunity to point out that what a leader said at one time is different (even if only semantically) from what they said later. Given the evolving nature of the pandemic, this is going to happen.
Human beings are meaning makers, taking what we see and hear and drawing conclusions. In the right circumstances, these conclusions can be highly accurate. But the need to make meaning can drive people to use prior experience as the basis for evaluations and decisions, even when the current situation has little in common with their reference points. This is known as the “saliency bias.” Someone who interprets, analyzes, and imputes motive to others, with little relevant data is not helping.
People who take up this position tend to question in a manner that, while it may have the grammatical markings of a question, is actually an accusation. This often feels like an ambush. Questions such as, “Why didn’t you mention the impact of supply chain issues?” or “Did you consider the instability of the supply chain?” The motivation of people who question a leader in a way that conveys an accusation doesn’t change the impact.
The Devil’s Advocate
It is important to allow questions, comments and concerns to be expressed for groups to be effective. However, when one person makes it their mission to oppose, argue, often with a prosecutorial tone, they can quickly become an irritant – and not just to the leader.Disruptors rarely announce themselves, they come in several disguises. Click To Tweet
What leaders can, and should do:
First, remind yourself that circumstances are not usual, for anyone. Leaders need to lead in ways that are more obvious, not less. This includes communicating that:
- There are many things we don’t know
- We are learning as we go
- People will make mistakes
- We will get through this
- We are resourceful, innovative, creative, and capable of using these abilities in pursuit of our purpose
Second, tell people what you expect, including:
- Best effort
- Sharing of ideas
- Patience, with oneself and others
Third, tell them what you do not want to see or hear:
- Hiding mistakes
- Rumor mongering
- Undermining of one another
Fourth, deal with disruptors straight away and head on. Leaders need to address the behavior, first with empathy for the disruptor. Let them know what effect they are having. Most people do not want to have a negative effect on others and will make a good effort to change. However, some will be unwilling or unable to adjust. It’s best to recognize it quickly and make changes as required by the circumstances.
Fifth, remind yourself and others, that we are in highly unusual circumstances and as people cope and adjust, we can expect missteps. Most people are very capable of adapting and will do so, even if inelegantly. There is no need to psychoanalyze, diagnose or foist our solutions on those whose behavior has recently changed, merely because we see a change. Long-term distress will be the exception, not the norm.
Leaders have the position and platform to call us to our best selves. The better a leader knows their people, the better they can remind them of their strengths and capability in ways that are highly personal.
Being understood is a powerful human need. Leaders who connect what is good and constructive about an individual to an important and urgent need, give them psychological fuel that is as essential as food and sleep.