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What to do if your employees have switched off

by Dan Cable and Fran Gino

How are your teams responding to the challenges of Covid-19? Are they engaged and switched on? Do they see the crisis as an opportunity? Are they pulling together to spot opportunities and build the roadmap to recovery? Or are they washed out, fed up and switched off?

We know that the pandemic has taken a massive toll on workers all over the planet, leading to a global sense of fatigue: the blurring of home and professional lives; hours spent in front of screens; virtual connections replacing human interaction; and above all, the relentless uncertainty about our health, our economy and our future.

Little wonder that employee engagement has dropped. In fact, according to a survey we ran of more than 8,000 US workers in July 2020, it’s taken a nosedive. Talking to these people and analysing their responses, we found that work engagement is down by an average of 16% since the pandemic hit, which is a worry.

But before you reach for the headache pills, there’s a brighter side to this story. Our survey also shed light on some revealing dynamics that could prove a silver lining for self-aware leaders everywhere.

We found that people’s level of engagement during Covid-19 was directly tied to their crisis mindset. In other words, if they just saw the pandemic as a threat, they switched off and became detached from work. However, if they were able to embrace change and see the disruption as an opportunity to learn and grow, they were more resilient. In fact, in some cases, people actually become more engaged and more energised by their work during the pandemic.

This might not be a big surprise. But what is really interesting is how much influence bosses have on whether employees adopt a crisis mindset or not. And it turns out that they have a lot.

You might think that most people are set in their ways: their glass is always half-empty or half-full. But in fact, our survey findings show that employees can be swayed towards (or away from) a positive crisis mindset by the actions and behaviours modelled by leaders. And this has a real impact on how engaged they feel.

Intrigued by this, we ran a subsequent survey with workers and found there are three critical things that leaders do that can definitively influence employee engagement in a crisis setting for the worse – or for the better.

From this, we’ve extrapolated three key questions; questions that you might want to ask yourself if you’re looking to boost employee engagement in this challenging time.

Three questions to ask yourself if your team is switching off

  1. How are you responding to the crisis? How full or empty do you see your own glass?
  2. Are you up to speed with what’s happening in your employees’ lives outside work?
  3. You’re putting out fires right now, but do you still have your eye on the bigger picture?

Let’s break these down and look at some things you can do if your employee engagement needs a little TLC.

1. How are you responding to the crisis?

Think about the last time you talked to someone cheerful and positive. Did it lift your mood or bring it down? Psychologists often talk about emotional contagion – the way in which other people’s emotions influence our own. In one study, a group of speakers were randomly given a gift certificate before taking the stage. Those given the certificate expressed more positive emotions in their talk than those who didn’t. But, tellingly, the audiences listening to the talks were also emotionally impacted. The positive speakers left their listeners feeling energised and positive.

Now apply that to your leadership. We know from our surveys that bosses’ attitudes were the single best predictor of their employees’ crisis mindsets, and consequently of how engaged they felt at work. Why not ask yourself this question: Are you anxious to get back to normal? Or do you see growth opportunities coming out of the crisis? Reflect on the crisis mindset you might be modelling to your teams.

It’s also worth bearing something else in mind: an opportunity mindset is not the same thing as blithe optimism! An opportunity mindset does not mean you think everything will be OK in the end. It’s much more nuanced than that. Take the case of Admiral James Stockdale, held captive in Vietnam for almost a decade. Stockdale endured seven years of torture because he believed he would survive. But that didn’t make him a diehard optimist. In fact, he wrote at length about the plight of his fellow prisoners who believed they’d be released when every holiday or anniversary fell. These were optimists, he said, who sadly ended up dying “of a broken heart”.

Adopting an opportunity mindset – one that you model with your teams and employees – means finding ways to acknowledge the seriousness of a situation, while simultaneously embracing the belief that there are solutions. It’s about understanding the challenges while looking for opportunities to emerge intact or even better off than you were before.

In the workplace this could translate into consciously signalling to your teams that there are opportunities to learn and grow even as you weather the storm together. You might want to remind your people that this is a time of skills-building; that the skills they develop today will serve them well or even better after the crisis. If you see the pandemic as an opportunity to reset and to rethink – to acquire knowledge, aptitudes, new capabilities and so on – it’s more than likely that your own learning mindset will become contagious. You will influence your employees positively and drive that critical engagement so much more successfully.

2. Are you up to speed with what’s happening in your employees’ lives outside work?

As leaders, many of us were schooled in legacy management culture – a relic of 19th-century productivity theory that saw workers as cogs in the machine.

We know now that this approach isn’t fit for purpose anymore. Research tells us that keeping people at arm’s length, rigorously separating the professional and the personal, can do more harm than good. That’s because so much of engagement is built around trust; around informal interactions that help us see each other as complete human beings. It’s all too easy to foment feelings of detachment if we view colleagues in two dimensions; easier still for those feelings to turn to stress, resentment and burnout in times of crisis.

Research also tells us that leaders who come across as humble and relatable are much better at helping people bring more of themselves to work. This is also borne out in our survey. When bosses had conversations with employees that touched on home life and personal wellbeing, the employees showed up to work feeling engaged. They were more likely to see the pandemic as a time to learn and engage – and all it might take is a simple, “How are you doing?” A genuine interest in hearing the response is likely to prove even more effective.

3. You’re putting out fires now, but is your eye still on the bigger picture?

When you’re putting out fires, it’s all too easy to get stuck in the details and neglect the why of what you’re doing. And that’s a danger.

Our survey showed that those employees who reported feeling the most disengaged were those whose bosses didn’t talk much about the purpose of their job or what the organisation stood for. This made them less likely to relate in a personal way to the goals, aims or values of their companies and teams. Again, we know that a key driver of engagement in ‘normal’ circumstances is having a shared sense of purpose and a clear understanding of the impact and importance each person has in the work they do. In a crisis, it matters even more.

As leaders, many of us will have spent a lot of our time recently putting out fires. We’ve had to figure a lot of things out on the hoof: how to manage our teams and service our customers remotely; how to safeguard business continuity with disrupted supply chains; how to shift our processes and systems online. The challenges have been enormous and have felt relentless for many of us.

But, as leaders, it also falls to us to build a sense of collective purpose. It falls to us to remind employees about how their contribution fits into the bigger picture and to share a vision of the future that inspires them to feel connected to what they do and to make sense of it.

However you choose go about that – sharing your personal vision, using analogies or examples, or inviting teams to articulate their own understanding of purpose – helping employees to internalise the bigger picture will also help them find new perspectives around ways of working. And help to build the resilience we all need to navigate the adversity, the uncertainty and the opportunities of the Covid era.

Dan Cable is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. He teaches on Degree Education and Executive Education programmes. Francesca Gino is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School.


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