Mal Fletcher
Facing Down Covid Unrest in Your Team!

Staying Proactive in the Face of Insecurity

What a season this has been. Without doubt, 2020 will be remembered as the year when displacement became the norm, with Covid19 as public disruptor number one.

Leaders in business, education and other sectors have reported that Covid19 - and the first, second and in some cases third lockdowns it has brought - has seriously impacted team harmony. Unexpected events or phenomena have a way of potentially undermining all our hard-work on team cohesion.

In my digital keynote sessions on the future mid- and post-Covid, I’m often asked: how can leaders respond positively to conflict within their teams? How can we perhaps even get ahead of the unrest, to provide both security and a model of proactive future-friendliness?

Here are some ideas I’ve presented to leaders, individually and in groups. 

Practice, Model & Encourage Empathy Skills

Many hard-pressed, often over-worked leaders find the idea of empathy skills a little below their pay grade. However, in times of great fluidity and uncertainty, people need a little extra TLC, even (or perhaps, especially) in the most competitive environments. 

Empathic responding allows us to separate an individual’s perceived or “presenting” need from their real need. People will often mask an underlying root problem with talk of other issues. 

Empathic responding is basic in active listening, the process by which we engage not only with a person’s words but with the pain behind their words. It allows us to mine the core of the anger, frustration or annoyance people feel.

Empathy skills allow us to answer an all-important question. What is it within their psycho-emotional make-up that motivates an individual’s attitude or response?

Senior executives are not the only ones who need to employ active listening skills. In wake of Covid-19, many “middle managers” - I don’t much like that term - are exposed to employee anxiety. It’s a situation for which they’re ill-prepared. 

They need help to develop techniques for active listening so that they too can assuage people’s fears. I’m not for a moment suggesting that every manager should morph into a professional counsellor or human resources expert. I’m simply pointing out that without some proactive people-friendly skills, managers will find it almost impossible to manage the greatest resource of all - people. 

Part of empathic responding is knowing when and how to challenging faulty or unhealthy thinking. This, too, requires some instruction and skill development. Senior leaders may need to enlist outsourced experts to help provide basic active listening skills.

Maintain firm core values

Conflict in the team causes some leaders to nervously re-evaluate all of their core values. They interpret problems in the team as a negative reflection on the values they’ve espoused. 

Early this year, at the start of the pandemic, I was invited to speak to a digital seminar hosted by the University of Pretoria in South Africa. I was asked to address the question: what will COVID19 mean for our collective values?

It’s a reasonable question and the pandemic, though certainly not a desirable thing in itself, has afforded us the chance to reflect on where we are headed - personally and collectively. (You can watch the pre-recorded video introduction to that session here.)

It is useful to pause for reflection. However, unless there is clear evidence that your core leadership values need to change, too much navel-gazing wastes precious time and energy, which could be used on solving more practical problems. 

As leaders, we must not assume that every challenge to our values or approach is a well-founded one. In the age of social media, everybody has an opinion, but not everyone has the proven experience to give weight to their opinion.

Confident leadership inspires trust. Weak leadership inspires frustration, anger and even attempted coups. Remember that the leader is not the person with the title, but the one who has the most influence over the team’s culture.

Discern the nature of the conflict

Are you facing a team conflict right now? Ask yourself and some trusted colleagues this question: is it personality-driven, or ideas-driven? Does it find its focus in a particular person or clique within the wider team? If so, what are their likely motivations and needs? Are they open to having their ideas tested or challenged; or are they simply predisposed to myopic thinking and finding fault?

Does their thinking have the potential to distract the entire enterprise, or can it be dealt with away from the wider group? Sometimes it is best to deal with conflict by concentrating your efforts on one or two people, rather than dealing with it in a wider team setting.

If certain people are central to the unrest, find positive, constructive ways to speak with them privately - and preferably as individuals. If there are two camps of opinion, with core people constantly butting heads, try private mediation, away from the team. 

Enlist the help of these people to suggest changes that may be needed, but remain clear about who is in leadership! Inform them, privately, that you’re open to their opinions and suggestions, so long as they are constructive, focused on the common good and not offered as fait accomplis. 

You must not abdicate leadership to others. That only creates frustration and an open door for trouble-makers. Your primary leadership is as a cultural architect - facilitating and fostering a particular culture in which people can flourish and projects can fly. 

Encourage dissent without disloyalty. Welcome new ideas, but ensure that the criterion for their acceptance is the ultimate fulfilment of the team’s mission wider mission - the successful delivery of a product or service to others!

Keep your eyes on the prize!

I was asked to address an international group of technology leaders via digital keynote recently. I told this Australia-based team that the core question every leader, in any sector, must answer is this: what kind of city do I want to live in ten years from now and how can I set that in motion?

Identifying a big picture mission for the company or enterprise is key to motivating yourself and your team. 

People no longer want to work for organisations that place corporate social responsibility at the periphery of their strategic thinking. Folks want to spend their working lives in companies that place the common good at the core of their planning and purpose.

People want to know they’re working for something beyond the corporate front door. 

If you ask the question above - and invite your team into the process of mapping this out - you will help people avoid introspection, which often leads to unrest, especially in trying times. It provides a blue-skies context, helping people measure the true weight and importance of their concerns.

I hope that these few ideas will help you not simply maintain your team spirit, but use this unusual season to improve it. 

I sincerely hope these thoughts, which have come out of years of team-building, will help you face up to team problems. I hope you will be encouraged that conflicts are quite normal in difficult times (especially where people are robbed of face-to-face contact).

Stay well and godspeed for life beyond Covid! 

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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