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Post-covid employee engagement

Fiona Passantino, November 2021

A group of heroes were on a mythical journey East, searching for spiritual renewal. They met with obstacles, adventure, danger and moments in darkness and despair.

The men were accompanied by a servant, Leo. Wise and thoughtful, Leo provided the team with essentials – rope, water, pack animals, food – listened and advised them, resolved conflicts, gave them encouragement, advice and told a few good jokes along the way to keep them laughing. As they set up their camp at the edge of the treacherous mountain gorge Morbio Inferiore, it was Leo who gathered the firewood, fetched the water and kept watch over the men as they slept.

In the morning they discovered that Leo has disappeared. The group fell into chaos, discord. The quest was abandoned. They went their separate ways. The team captain wandered from town to town for years afterwards, trying to find Leo and understand how it all went so wrong.

The people doing most of the talking and ideation should be the ones out doing the work, interacting with the customer. The people doing the most listening and implementing should be the leaders.

This means that the traditional, top-down org chart needs to be flipped on its head.
Servant Leadership can sometimes be harsh.

Years later, Leo reappeared and revealed his true identity to the team captain. Not a servant at all, but the president of the same powerful organization that had bankrolled the original journey in the first place.

“The Journey to the East” was written in 1932 by German author Herman Hesse. The story adeptly describes a Servant Leader, well before the concept of the Agile Way of Working[i], and the term was first used in the business context in 1970 in an essay by Robert K. Greenleaf[ii].

Traditional leaders start with the needs of the company and charge forward with a list of desired results. The team is there to fall in line and provide results. Servant Leaders start with the people and focus on providing them what they need to return maximum value to the whole[iii].

Servant Leaders also understand that the people with the most compelling ideas, who best understand the needs of the customer are the ones that work with them every day. The best experts in company processes are the individuals who work with those processes. All this expertise is largely untapped in a traditional company, but in the post-Covid context, these voices need to be listened to and amplified.

This means that the people doing most of the talking and ideation should be the ones out doing the work, interacting with the customer. The people doing the most listening and implementing should be the leaders.

The traditional, pyramid-shaped org chart as we know it needs to be flipped on its head.

Seven ways to flip the org chart

  1. Create a safe space. Before anything else can happen, teams feel safe to express themselves and know that their jobs are not on the line if they deliver bad news. You get to the root of the problem much faster and find the actual problem rather than the scapegoat. Often team members don’t speak up, and are not sharing what’s really going on. A safe space exists when information is freely shared, no question is stupid and no comment (unless it’s mean) is out of line.

  2. Listen. The Servant Leader speaks last[iv]. He starts a meeting with silence, thus creating room for dialogue. He listens to everyone in the (Zoom) room first, gathering opinions, anecdotes and data. Soaking up the emotional energy, the vibe, along the way. Not just what is being said, but what the individual team members feel about it. Listening to body language, aware of what is not said. Repeating this back to the group before moving on.

  3. Empathize. The Servant Leader feels the pain and the pleasures of the team as if it were her own, putting herself in their shoes as much as possible. This makes finding solutions easier: “if this were happening to me, what would I need?” The Servant Leader is also a healer; someone who can support the emotional health of her team. In the Covid context, this can be the difference between a low and high functioning group.

  4. Celebrate success and failures. Take a moment to enjoy the moment. Victories are easy to celebrate. But just as important is the (self!) identification and recognition of failure. The faster you see it, the faster it can be reversed. Highlight a Fabulous F-up as a learning moment (only possible in a safe space, see step 1). Failures are only learning moments when the person doing the failing admits it, loud and proud, and this is only done if there’s a reward, emotional or otherwise, waiting at the other end. Admission of failure is painful. IT starts with the leader; by going first, she sets the stage and makes it safe for others to follow suit.

  5. Communicate clearly and effectively. The Servant Leader is adept at communicating a vision. While ides and advice come from the ground, the leader still is the holder of the long-term vision as a whole, since he still has the overview that the worker bees don’t. Once the listening is done, the vision is effectively communicated to everyone. This will spark an equal and opposite reply. The listening cycle starts up again. Repeat. A truly iterative conversation is born.

  6. Take responsibility. Your team is not to blame for misunderstandings, a bad vibe, an unsafe space, a botched deadline, a lack of motivation; you are. By taking responsibility and admitting mistakes early, you encourage the team to do the same for their parts (see step 4). Set an example. This will create ownership and responsibility in the wider team.

  7. Humor. Laughter, the universal stress reliever. No problem is too great or too devastating not to laugh at, even as it’s unfolding and cluster F-ing the entire planet. Laughter relaxes, removes the cortisol from the conversation. Gets us to focus, look for solutions, work together. Work is more fun, time flies even for monotonous jobs when we are laughing. Jokes at work are funny when they’re self-deprecating, positive, supportive, non-discriminatory and support a common purpose.

The post-Covid workspace will be continue to be remote and worker-driven. Most companies will find themselves in a continually shape-shifting hybrid model, and effective leaders will need to feel comfortable with uncertainty, greater democracy, and be adept at inspiring in a remote environment[v]. A recent McKinsey study confirms that remote work will likely continue, Covid or no, in industries like technology, finance, insurance, and professional consulting[vi].

Focusing on the people around them, the Servant Leader understands what each one needs to grow and evolve, supporting their mental and physical health and welfare, putting their needs ahead of the company as a whole, turbo-charging the team and delivering in areas they never expected.

[i] Marvelly (2017). “Hermann Hesse: The Journey to the East”, The Culturium. https://www.theculturium.com/hermann-hesse-the-journey-to-the-east/

[ii] Greenleaf (2016). “The contemporary servant as leader”. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-540-70818-6_6

[iii] Tait (2020). “Traditional Leadership Vs. Servant Leadership”, Forbes Magazine online, Forbes Coaches Council. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/03/11/traditional-leadership-vs-servant-leadership/?sh=40e552f4451e

[iv] Sinek (2017). “Be the Last to Speak” https://youtu.be/3EPLItTf-QU

[v] Citrin & Derosa (2021). “The New Reality for Executives: Leading at a Distance”, Fast Company Magazine. https://www.fastcompany.com/90646271/leading-at-a-distance