Have you heard the one about the trembling man who is about to undergo surgery? “Doctor, I’m nervous. This is my first time having an operation,” says the patient. “Don’t worry,” soothes the doctor, “It’s my first time in surgery, too.”
In 2021, managers everywhere might consider the surgeon and feel a flicker of recognition. Few leaders have experienced a pandemic before and yet they are still expected to steer their people (and organisations) towards successful outcomes.
At times like this, it can feel lonely at the top. And that’s why smart managers turn to people like Shannon Cooper AFIML, who has been training, coaching and advising leaders for more than a decade. A regular facilitator for the likes of IML ANZ and Swinburne University, Cooper specialises in helping managers create high-performing teams during good times or bad.
“Right now, organisations are grappling with incredible economic, social and technology upheaval – and people are looking to their leaders for reassurance and direction,” says Cooper. To rise to this challenge and develop high-performing teams, Cooper suggests nine practical steps that managers can take.
1. Keep your radar up
During a pandemic, a lot can happen in a short space of time. While management attention will (rightly) be devoted to unfolding events, it’s important leaders also notice what they’re learning about their organisation, their people and themselves.
“Leaders who observe what’s happening, reflect upon it, and record it, will give themselves a strong foundation to build upon,” says Cooper. “During booms or busts, history tells us that the leaders who thrive are those who notice what’s happening around them, question the status quo, and focus on the things that they can influence despite all the uncertainty.”
2. Take a clear-eyed look at your team
Managers need to understand what a high-performing team consists of, and must form a realistic view of how close or far their team is from this, as Cooper explains: “Ultimately, every high-performing team is built upon trust, so to begin with you need to know what the current level of trust is. To do that, we look for three qualities: confidence, competence and honesty.”
To function well, team members need to have confidence in one another. “Managers can assess the level of confidence within their team by observing the interactions and conversations people have,” says Cooper. “Do colleagues show up prepared for meetings? Do team members keep each other updated on progress? Do they do what they say they will do?”
To perform well, team members also need opportunities to demonstrate their competence. Managers should talk with their people and ask them if they feel they have the chance to shine and fully contribute at work. “When colleagues use their skills and knowledge, they’re showing their competence and that engenders trust in the group,” explains Cooper.
Finally, there needs to be a level of honesty within teams. Sometimes the best evidence of honesty can be found when something doesn’t go according to plan. “If a project is going off track for any reason, individuals need to speak up and let their colleagues know,” advises Cooper.
3. Give your people certainty
If we’ve learned anything in 2020-21, it’s that life can be unpredictable. But teams do still require at least some certainty. “Some managers have responded to the pandemic by postponing decisions but their people, customers and communities are actually seeking a level of certainty from them,” explains Cooper.
“Even amidst all this volatility, leaders can create islands of certainty – even if it’s just in the short term. The trick is to find things that you can control,” says Cooper.
For example, routine can be introduced for remote and virtual working arrangements with teams. “Managers need to clearly articulate their guidelines and expectations for individuals and teams,” says Cooper. “That should include how people work together as well as specific outputs. Colleagues need to know which channels they can use to raise questions or discuss problems. And they need to understand what their targets or objectives are too.”
4. Have the courage to speak up
Once team members are clear on what is expected of them, it’s important to keep everyone accountable. Turning a blind eye to underperformance – even for just one individual – sends a message to everybody that you accept low standards.
“This has become even more important with teams working remotely” says Cooper. “Trust is only possible when colleagues know they can rely on one another to deliver what they say they are going to. When someone isn’t lifting their weight, and the manager doesn’t pull them on it, then colleagues are left with a choice: Carry the extra weight themselves (leading to overwork and resentment), or follow their manager’s lead and let it slide. Neither approach is healthy or sustainable for the team and results will inevitably suffer.”
So, for managers, any short-term discomfort when calling out underperformance is preferable to staying quiet and enduring substantial damage in the long term.
5. Help people find a new rhythm
Having switched from physical working arrangements to virtual or hybrid alternatives, communication rhythms need to change too. “The increase in remote working means that most leaders need to increase the frequency of catch ups,” says Cooper. “A monthly team meeting might have been fine when everyone worked under the same roof but people now need new ways to connect. Depending on the size of your team, you might now meet on a fortnightly or weekly basis.”
Regular check-ins with individual colleagues should also be scheduled, recommends Cooper. “Yes, this will require more time in your diary but you need to commit to it. As a leader, people want and need to sit down and have a conversation with you.”
This new rhythm will also require new structure, suggests Cooper. “What will the agenda be for each meeting? How should people prepare? What is (and isn’t) in scope for each meeting? All these things need to be clearly and simply stated by the manager up front, so that there are no surprises.”
It’s also important for teams to get together without their leaders, according to Cooper. “If people are no longer catching up in the lunch room or the morning coffee run, people need to connect in other ways. For example, I know organisations where there’s now a ‘team huddle’ at the same time every morning. Just for seven or eight minutes, they go around in a circle and each person shares: what they did yesterday, what they are working on today, and any help they need from their colleagues. Then they get on with their day.”
6. Be visible (especially when you’re working remotely)
When remote working became more widespread, many teams’ working hours became disjointed. Home schooling and other commitments have caused people to work outside of traditional office hours.
“Leaders should encourage everyone in their team to have empathy and respect for one another’s home life,” says Cooper. “Visibility of calendars is really helpful here. Previously we might not have shared our calendars but now teams need to know what people’s work hours are. It’s an efficient way to ensure meetings are set for a mutually convenient time, and phonecalls come at the right time, too.”
7. Celebrate successes and wins
Human beings have evolved to focus on difficulties and gloss over the good things in life. So, managers need to consciously monitor for positive results and take time out to recognise these. This is especially true during times of duress, such as a pandemic.
“In their regular one-on-one meetings, leaders can make a point of asking ‘What is your one biggest win, over the past week?’ And how does that make you feel?’” suggests Cooper. “As well as boosting morale, this can help managers identify what motivates their colleagues, which is incredibly important. It also lets people know that their efforts are recognised and appreciated.”
8. Collaborate with your people to shape the future
Many people assume the principles of design thinking only apply to the way organisations serve customers. But managers can also work with colleagues to co-design new ways of working together – and now is the perfect time to so do.
“Organisations are not going to snap neatly back to their pre-COVID structures and operations,” says Cooper. “There is an opportunity to have a fair dinkum conversation with your team, asking them how they’d like to work in future. What challenges did they face during 2020? What are their expectations going forward? How can remote working be optimised? Asking empathetic questions like these will allow you to make decisions from a more informed place.”
9. Dig deep
Having followed the previous eight steps, leaders will be in a strong position to think about the bigger picture. “Managers who have noticed what’s happening around them will be best placed to inform senior leadership about strategic questions.” says Cooper. “Those include: How should we structure the team? How should we define roles, responsibilities and workflow? How might we best design problem-solving and innovation pipelines?”
Such questions help managers apply what they have learned and take them to a deeper level of design thinking. “While there’s no shortage of challenges for managers right now, this is also a really exciting time,” concludes Cooper. “There’s an abundance of opportunities that are going to be flying at you thick and fast, if you are ready to notice them.”