Beyond the election: 5 tips for leadership through discord

November 12, 2020 - 6 min read

This fall is hard. No one leading people or managing a business will deny the challenges: parts of the economy opening up, parts of the workforce returning to work, and, of course, the politically-charged atmosphere around the U.S. elections. Post-election, it appears some have exhaled, but many have not. The charged environment persists. We still face broad uncertainty, deep divisions, and a less-than-amicable transition period. Every person, across all organizations, is feeling the impact. 

But business isn’t waiting. Companies are still serving customers, making decisions, and launching products. And organizations need their people to make it happen. They need their people and teams to work together, to be productive, and to continue to push boundaries, have great ideas, and excel at execution.

The question is: How can leaders lead effectively through this time? How should they approach meeting the needs of the business and also meeting the needs of their people?

If you feel a little lost, or afraid to make a wrong step, you’re not alone.

It isn’t easy, but leading through change is part of the leadership you already do. It feels amplified, but meaning and purpose, belonging, and resilience still apply. We’ve pulled together some highlights below to help leaders like you lead productively through the next few weeks.

  1. Be realistic in expectations and priorities. The next few weeks might not hit all — or any — of your productivity targets. Consider your priorities and communicate those clearly, yet compassionately, to your employees. If there are initiatives that cannot slip, reorient resources to make sure they stay on target. Be sure to think about the outcomes, for the workforce and/or culture, that are most important to you and your company. Maybe it is having a workforce that emerges cohesive and more strongly committed to a mission for the customer. Maybe it is having your people feel heard and less alone. Maybe it is reinforcing a cultural value of curiosity and inclusion where people make sense of and negotiate their differences. Hone in on these outcomes and put a plan in place to move toward them.
  2. Reaffirm belonging and shared values. It’s tempting, but trying to ban all political talk may backfire and probably won’t resolve the tensions that threaten productivity and teamwork. Instead, think about positive steps you can take, proactively, to reinforce commonality and your company's values. Use meetings and other communications to reaffirm your commitment to values like mutual respect, quality, customer, and care. Many companies voiced their support for the democratic process and this can continue to frame your company’s position amid differing perspectives. At an organizational level—modeled and reinforced by managers—be clear on what behaviors won’t be accepted, such as interfering with operations, jeopardizing safety, or creating hostile work environments. 
  3. Focus on shared meaning. Some of your people may be as anxious about potential disagreements and conflict with co-workers as anything else. Many are looking to work as a respite from politics and doom-scrolling the news. Help your teams by reminding them of the ultimate users and beneficiaries of their work and by talking openly about your own attempts to find meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in the day-to-day work during the past eight months. Refocus them on what they can control: the way they show up on a call, their own contributions to delivering a product, or craftsmanship around a particular project or customer. 
  4. Let people feel heard. People are feeling a mixture of relief, joy, anxiety, fear, and anger just to name a few emotions. Acknowledge this difficult stew of emotions. Create space, ideally in smaller team and 1:1 settings, for people to express what they are feeling. As one of our coaches pointed out last week, there are members who feel like their companies have a dominant political mindset in their team or affinity group that they are uncomfortable pushing against . When identity and values feel threatened, the zone of psychological safety feels even smaller. As a leader, your words and actions demonstrate whether diverse backgrounds, experiences, and ideas, or even different political perspectives, are truly welcome and valued. Today’s leaders need to promote environments where differences are respected, efforts are recognized, and everyone is a valued contributor. 
  5. Model resiliency and compassion. Leaders set the tone for team and organizational resilience by navigating adversity effectively. All of the feelings floating in your workiverse are likely amped and extreme. This leads to distraction, lack of focus, and irritability as well as poor sleep and unhealthy eating and drinking habits. Manage the physical outcomes of your own internal discord and encourage your people to do the same. It's generally easier to react with empathy, curiosity, and patience when we aren't in the grip of flight-or-flight reactions. Recognize and let go of the most destabilizing aspects of your reactions. For example, try a simple breathing exercise to slow heart rate and counteract fear or anger, or throw down a fitness challenge to release tension. 

Finally, stay alert to the endless potential for misunderstandings, disengagement, and loss of perspective in a remote- and text-based world. If you find yourself reacting to something a colleague said or unleashing expletives at an email, assume positive intent, get curious, and schedule some time to connect in a 1:1. Similarly, take this approach if a colleague becomes uncharacteristically inflexible, or unwilling to make tradeoffs or compromise. We're all under a lot of pressure in different ways, so an offhand comment could reflect a need for support — for them or for you. 

Published November 12, 2020

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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