South African leadership challenges in the wake of the pandemic

RonelleNews

By Ronelle Bester, MD of Red Ribbon Communications, South Africa

Cultivating kindness and empathy could be a leader’s greatest asset in these challenging and unprecedented times.

With the slow roll-out of the South African vaccination programme, it’s unlikely that working conditions will revert to their pre-COVID-19 state any time soon. Business leaders will have to contend with the challenges of managing hybrid teams for some time to come, and to do so successfully, many will have to dramatically change their management style.

Now more than ever before, business leaders will need to remember that people are their organisations’ greatest assets, and they will have to make a concerted effort to take care of them to maintain productivity, continuity and good customer service.

As staff work from their homes, the lines between personal and home life have blurred, and managers need to be cognisant of this. Anxiety, exhaustion and grief due to personal loss are more prevalent than ever before, adding to the normal workplace stresses and threatening to overwhelm your teams. Behind the scenes on the online staff meeting, your team members could be at breaking point.

This is forcing leaders and executives to embrace more sensitised and empathetic styles of leadership.

Cultivate self-care and compassion
As an owner of a small PR agency, I personally had to find ways to create boundaries between work and home, and build in time for activities that energise rather than drain. On the positive side, this is an opportunity for us to step back and ask hard questions of ourselves, our purpose and what we value and how we measure success as individuals, leaders and as businesses.

As a result, at Red Ribbon we instituted meeting-free-Fridays to give employees a break from video calls, and allow them time to focus on their work without distractions. We also introduced weekly virtual Pilates classes, signed up team members for a fitness app, and encourage regular body stress relief massages.

By accepting that everyone has a life beyond work, and that things such as having to rush to collect a sick child from school are out of a team member’s control, we have been able to improve our team’s loyalty and productivity even during this difficult time. We emphasize that it is important to listen to each other and be very honest about things not going well in our personal lives, so others can step in to offer support and the company doesn’t drop the ball when it comes to our client services.

These measures aren’t important only for employees – leaders need to focus on their own physical and mental health to remain good leaders. By speaking about your own concerns and challenges, and prioritising your own wellbeing, you set a good example to those you lead. You acknowledge your common humanity and create the space for others to follow your example.

Strike a balance
For leaders it is important to strike the right balance between staying in touch with team members’ needs while also ensuring that they remain productive, and being empathetic without becoming over involved. Leaders may need to become more flexible about office hours and the number of meetings required, while still keeping close tabs on outputs and targets.

Personal, honest and direct communication works best. Less email and more video-conferencing, and creating space for informal connections that build trust and team spirit will go a long way to building meaningful and supportive connections among your team members.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that we are all just human and we need the same things. Typically, most of your team members will also want the organisation to succeed – particularly at a time when many South Africans have lost their jobs. In seeking to survive the crisis and to rebuild and thrive, organisations will need resilient people from the top of the organisation to the bottom. Kindness, compassion and empathy are the glue that keeps people together as they move forward. As leaders, this should be our priority.

Allow time to think and reflect
With the business landscape ever-changing, leaders and their teams have to quickly adapt and change. However, it is easy to default to “get things done” and miss opportunities to re-imagine new possibilities. Leaders should draw boundaries to ensure that work does not intrude on much-needed down time, and they should clear diaries of day-to-day tasks from time to time, to encourage brainstorming sessions where teams are free to contribute their ideas without distractions.

The boldness and speed required of business to grow now has more to do with our mindsets of what is possible and what people are willing to do, and is less about technical limits. Unless we examine the mindset, beliefs and assumptions that underpin our responses to the crisis and our experiences as leaders, we will fail to learn deeply and rise to new challenges.

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