The pandemic has brought into relief many problems that already existed in workplaces, and through my coaching clients I’m seeing how many issues are arising in leadership. My clients are experiencing this in droves.

Most of my coaching clients are leaders, who in turn report to others in leadership positions. I’m seeing higher levels of distress throughout organizations, presenting itself as pretty detrimental behaviours among senior leadership.

Many of my clients are on the verge of burnout, or in order to avoid burnout are using every possible resource they can access and putting all their energy into maintaining themselves in an environment that’s growing steadily more toxic. If their leaders would put as much energy into finding the right approach to managing right now as my clients are, entire organizations would be saved a lot of stress and mismanagement.

Acknowledging shortcomings during a crisis

The best leaders right now are able to see their employees as whole people. And these whole people have been in a crisis for a full year now. We’re all experiencing some kind of COVID brain. It slows us down, makes it hard to concentrate, we have heightened anxiety and anger. There is a phenomenon being called the “corona-coaster,” where our moods go up and down constantly. We’re thin-skinned. Addiction and intimate partner abuse are rampant.

There are also physical manifestations of what we’ve been going through—tension headaches, sore backs, insomnia. And the Canadian winter has made us all (at least all those of us with icy winds and sidewalks!) feel cooped up, and many can’t access winter sports.

Parents who’ve been home with their kids for a year are really going through traumatic situations, and many women are unable to work because they’re caring for the children.

And this is the context in which we have toxic bosses getting very upset when their subordinates don’t deliver!

Adjusting expectations for everyone

Unfortunately, among senior leadership, expectations are at the same level they were before the pandemic began. But right now workplaces are volatile, ambiguous, and unpredictable in this pressure cooker of a pandemic, and we need to adjust what we expect people produce and stop holding people to impossibly perfect standards.

Of course, we still have to deliver our work. A lot of us do genuinely urgent tasks. But every single piece of work I’m dealing with, from signing contracts to having meetings, is taking two, three, even four times longer than usual. And it’s fine—it’s normal!

So yes, the work needs to get done, but it’s essential for managers to plan around the pandemic, to recognize that their team needs leeway, flexibility, and longer timelines right now. I’m not talking about people using the pandemic as an excuse to keep underperforming, but anyone who’s always performed well should be given the benefit of the doubt and extra supports and time to keep doing their job.

This includes managers, whose top-level bosses in turn need to recognize the extraordinary difficulty leaders are facing in juggling all the very messy and stressful realities of their teams.

Self-care can’t fix it

I feel so much compassion for my clients. I help them ground, use all the somatic processes I’ve learned as a coach to help them cultivate that space between stimulus and response and get back in charge of their physiology, their psychology and emotions. But it doesn’t matter how much you tell people about self-care if they’re living in environments that don’t sustain life. If your manager is a hyper, stressed-out, anxious perfectionist; or an authoritarian, my-way-or-the-high-way manager, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

And those top-level managers themselves need support. They’re taking on a lot of the pressures, making them into stress, and then they let it out onto people. They choose a target, and each person knows they could be next. One by one employees crack under the pressure from this abuse. The entire process would be stopped in its tracks if the bosses themselves were attending to their own humanity, through therapy and coaching, and keeping the whole of their employees in mind.

Practically, at this moment, this could mean introducing measures to address the realities of COVID brain—things like creating longer timelines for deliverables, holding fewer long meetings (especially for those juggling children and work), and offering an explicit message that it’s okay to be late right now, to be average instead of excellent. An explicit message that the team will pull together, offer each other grace, and prioritize each other’s humanity over deliverables at all costs.

Holding on to perspective

The most important thing is the health and well-being of everyone involved. No one is going to fare well—not companies, and not the clients and industries they support—if half of the workforce is on stress leave!

We can’t focus on outstanding achievement right now; it’s a fool’s errand. We must all do our best to support each other and survive.

For anyone skeptical about focusing on humanity versus performance, this video by Simon Sinek offers excellent insight into how being a kind, trustworthy team player will always matter more than being “high performance.”

And I would add that it’s time we reevaluate what “performance” even means!

I’d love to hear how you and those both above and below you in your work hierarchy are coping. What’s changed at work in the last year? Have expectations stayed the same or has your workplace adapted to pandemic stress?

If you need more tools to promote workplace wellness or to cope in an environment that’s not healthy for you, reach out.

2 thoughts on “Preserving humanity in leadership”

  1. claudia chowaniec

    Thanks Dominique.
    I always pay attention to your insights and the advice you offer your clients.
    As a volunteer at Compassionate Ottawa, I am engaged with the Compassionate Workplace team.
    We wrestle with what topics/themes we can offer to organizations (via Zoom workshops) that want to create/build a caring workplace culture.
    I would value hearing your thoughts,
    All best.

  2. Wonderful post, Dominique. The video, for me, very succinctly drives home just how much the drive to meet external expectations of high performance – i.e. the expected outcomes that , so often, hold little or no meaning for us – disconnect us from ourSelves and each other. Performance is often seen as leadership; however, there is no Leader Self in that.

    Two very different ideas. Leadership is about about the optics of expected performance and outcomes. Leader Self is about experiencing life in full RIG – Respect, Integrity and Generosity of Spirit – in and for one’s Self, as the invitation to Others to know themselves differently; in that, rapport with Self and Other prevails, feeling safe ensures and trust thrives.

    I’ll be sharing this post with others. Thank you.

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