2021 taught us we can continue the human-centric leadership approach if we can keep the focus and intentionality of our interactions top of mind.
by Leah Clark
December 17, 2021
Resilience was the watchword of 2020 as organizations and leaders scrambled to deal with the unprecedented changes they faced. From adapting to a fully remote environment, pivoting to find new ways to meet client needs and delivering on business results — all while hunkering down to keep employees safe and healthy — leaders demonstrated they were scrappy and hardy: they were resilient.
But the crisis of 2020 gave way to something more settled and more measured. 2021 taught us that although leaders made it through the roughest of seas, they need to chart a new course for the future — one that is reflective, holistic, and above all, intentional.
The quiet of the pandemic caused an increased reflectiveness on the part of many. Individuals noticed what needed to be painted, fixed or redecorated in their homes. People took up hobbies they had been putting off but always wanted to try. Caregivers got up-close-and-personal with their kids and schoolwork as many transitioned to part-time educators. Folks became aware of the power of human connection, most notable by its absence.
This awareness happened against the background of a work-from-home scenario that made it increasingly impossible to separate personal identities, values and priorities from career or work-related interactions. The forced collision of home and work life smashed together all parts of ourselves. And when we began to pick up the pieces and put it back together, we realized the picture we were reshaping didn’t look quite right anymore.
The picture changed for leaders as well. The work-from-home experiment morphed into a more permanent shift — impacting the way employees got work done and interacted with each other. Leaders became aware that their people needed them in new and different ways. As productivity soared, so too did fatigue and concerns about well-being. Having become attuned and empathetic to the personal needs of their employees in unprecedented ways, leaders realized this newfound awareness wasn’t going anywhere. But just becoming aware wasn’t enough.
Action with intentionality
The awareness gained in 2020 gave way to the choices and actions of 2021 — not random knee-jerk reactions, but purposeful decisions. While the pandemic dispelled the myth that we have complete control over our lives, in 2021 folks regained some of the agency they lost and used it to take action.
The “Great Resignation” resulted from several powerful forces coming together. Pent-up demand for resources and talent was unleashed at the same time folks were emerging from a deeply personal and reflective time. These were not random departures.
The time for reflection and self-awareness gave way to actions taken with a greater sense of purpose. Some felt an increased sense of urgency about their own choices due to frustration with the lack of organizational action in responding to needs ranging from commitments to virtual work or increasing strides in diversity and inclusion.
2021 taught us to be intentional in the way we connect, not just with other people, but with our own values. We became simultaneously stronger and softer in 2020. That strength, combined with personal reflection, resulted in greater intentionality of actions in 2021. As one leader so eloquently put it, “I am not getting on the hamster wheel again. The past year showed me what I was missing and I’m not going back to what I had.”
It’s not the revelation that 2021 taught us, it’s the resolve we have all felt to show up differently in the world — as employees, as leaders and as human beings.
How can we carry that intentionality forward and what does it mean for leaders?
2021 encouraged us not to lose focus on empathy, connection and personal well-being, but “return to normal” made it a bigger effort to keep those things alive. There is no reason I can’t continue to do puzzles with my children, but in the hustle and bustle of after-school activities, I need to be more intentional about making the time. There is no reason we can’t continue to express empathy and compassion for our team members, but we need to consciously do so before forging into our agendas.
There is no reason we can’t move as quickly and be as agile as we were before, but we need to push ourselves to test those boundaries. There is no reason leaders can’t continue to consider the well-being of their people and express the empathy they got so good at in 2020, but they need to redouble their focus — keeping it front and center and taking actions to demonstrate they care.
Leaders need to be more intentional in the way they communicate, connect with their people, drive team cohesion and host meetings. Having been made more aware of the issues of well-being and mental health, or the impact of digital fatigue, those issues must factor into a leader’s interaction with their people. And as leaders are pressed to deal with a range of new issues, including the rise of hybrid teams, they will need to carry that intentionality into the way they onboard new employees, coach, hold meetings and delegate.
A leader with intentionality becomes attuned to the needs of their people — both what they need to contribute to the organization and what they need to be satisfied as individuals. Employees are continuing to prioritize balance and well-being — areas leaders would be well served to pay attention to.
Leaders must continue to talk about what’s important to employees, their values and how their work can satisfy those values, particularly where there is widespread fatigue and burnout. Above all, leaders need to spend the time with their people and understand what’s important to each individual. Satisfaction of values is an individualized equation — what works for one person might not work for all, so an intentional approach is required.
Leaders readily understand their goal is to ensure contribution to their organization. But “people over profits” has never been more apparent than it is in a post-COVID world. It can be easy to say, but harder to do — unless you are intentional.
From awareness to intentionality: A leader’s guide
How can leaders maximize these positive results? It’s about continuing to transcend awareness and move toward intentionality.
- In team meetings – Aware: I am going to notice who is contributing and how frequently. Intentional: I am going to bring my virtual team members into the conversation.
- When connecting with others – Aware: I am going to be tuned in to the personal elements of my employee’s life. Intentional: I am going to ask my team members about some aspect of their lives. I am going to share mine.
- Career – Aware: I am going to notice who seems motivated and engaged. Intentional: I am going to weave career-related questions into my one-on-ones.
- Psychological safety – Aware: I am going to be aware of whether or not the environment is a safe space for people to bring their true selves. Intentional: I take responsibility for actively creating an environment where folks can bring all of themselves to the table.
- Fatigue – Aware: I am going to notice if my people seem overworked or are struggling with fatigue. Intentional: I am going to modify our work schedule or rules of interaction to allow specific breaks or breaks from meetings.
- Focus – Aware: I am going to notice the continued results of my team. Intentional: I am going to talk to my team about the work they are doing and what support they need from me.