How well do leaders perform during crisis?
My firm, Sanborn & Associates, Inc., completed a national research study to uncover lessons leaders can use during these perplexing times. Specifically, we sought to answer: How well did leaders handle the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and what does that portend for leaders going forward?
Survey participants in the national study consisted of 1,005 consumers ages 18-90 weighted to the U.S. Census for age, gender, geography, and ethnicity. This sample composition provided a highly accurate “snapshot of America”.
1. Most employees are more anxious now but a significant percentage are more optimistic.
57% are more anxious about the future. No big surprise there.
In juxtaposition, consider:
40% Gen Z, 33% of millennials and 30% of Gen X think work life will be better (Boomers were least optimistic at 18%).
On the personal front, over one-third of Americans agreed their personal life would be better (35%), their relationships would be better (34%), and their productivity would be better (33%). Americans were more than three times more likely to say they will be better off than worse off after the crisis is over.
Whether you call it “anxious optimism” or “optimistic anxiety,” the implications are clear. Leaders need to reduce the amount of anxiety their teams face (for whatever reason) and help deliver improvements and results that prove the optimism is legitimate.
Of all my findings, such optimism in the face of uncertainty and anxiety is most important. It gives leaders an agenda for better serving both employees and customers.
2. Employees now want the flexibility and resources that crisis proved employers could provide.
In the past when employees wanted options like remote work or different working hours, employees said those requests weren’t really feasible.
Covid proved they are.
Covid forced employers to find and offer alternative workplace solutions. It wasn’t something done for convenience or workplace improvement, but survival. Suddenly flexibility that was often not offered was now required, and new resources were provided to meet new challenges.
The door is open for reinventing work, and many want more accommodations that they know are possible.
3. Nearly half of respondents (48%) thought their organization would be the same after the crisis.
Have things returned to normal where you work? This data suggests that many thought business and life would return to normal defined as what life was life pre-pandemic.
If Covid disrupted so much, how could so many reasonably assume the company would remain the same? Many changes in the past have been temporary, and perhaps employees believed the same would be true after Covid. To date that has not been the case nor will it be.
Leaders need to create change resilient organizations where crisis is seen as an opportunity for improvement and not just disruption, and where the expectation of “back to normal” is considered unrealistic.
4. Leaders scored highest on communication but they didn’t do that particularly well.
56% of Americans working full-time say their leaders communicated well or extremely well during this crisis. 20% said their leaders did not communicate well.
That’s a good score, but not a great score. And it was the area where leaders scored highest in the research.
Leaders seem to think that when it comes to communication, more is better–especially in times of crisis. In actuality, better is better. More information overwhelms; the right information instructs. A skill of leadership is knowing who needs what information when, and then communicating concisely and effectively.
5. Leaders did worst at supporting the morale of their teams.
Nearly one-fourth (23%) all respondents said that leaders did not show concern for them and only 30% o f Generation Z agreed “My leader kept my morale up.”
In times of crisis leaders can have a hard time keeping their own morale up. Still, being what leaders did least well is a bit unexpected. We literally didn’t know if we’d live or die, both figuratively as organizations and literally as individuals and there were few experiences most leaders had that provided a playbook for a crisis like that.
Reality is as or more difficult for others as it is for the leader and the lesson is to pay as much attention to the morale of those you lead as your own.
6. Leaders have dramatic but simple room for improvement.
45% of Americans said leaders in the U.S. generally did not handle the pandemic well, compared to only 29% who said they did handle it well, and 27% who were neutral. All of these challenges beg the question, what can leaders do to better connect with and earn the respect of Americans during future challenges?
I think leaders did their best and tried their hardest in general. Lack of performance wasn’t due to a lack of desire, but a lack of skill. Leaders of all ages were facing an unprecedented crisis. Those with the most experience and best skills probably fared best. That is why I wanted to study where leaders did well and not so well. This provides a learning agenda for leaders gong forward.
7. Remote work isn’t the real issue.
When, where and how employees is the most important issue. My research showed that 34% of Gen Z felt employers needed to give them better tools to work remotely. But when one works remotely, that means they have options in where, when and how they work. Remote work is the tip of the iceberg. The entire workforce equation is being reinvented.
The Big Lesson for Leaders
No matter if a team member believes his or her life will be better or worse in the future, leaders are challenged to inspire and instruct in a way their lives will become better. Even workers who were positive about the future still admitted to anxiety. Leaders may not know exactly what the future holds, but there is still much they can do to deal constructively with anxiety.
That is the new challenge of leadership: not just to reduce the anxiety experienced at work, but lead in building better outcomes for employees and customers despite what challenges may come.
Mark Sanborn is an award winning speaker and Leadership Expert in Residence at High Point University, the Premier Life Skills University. For more information about his work, visit www.marksanborn.com.