Organizational Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Each of us has been personally affected by the COVID-19 global health crisis. In the course of a few short weeks, the daily rhythms of our lives – school, work, sports, social gatherings, shopping and eating out – came to a screeching halt. As the severity of the pandemic set in, we navigated fear and uncertainty and scrambled to stay current with constantly evolving public health guidelines and government response programs. Non-essential and essential businesses alike faced pressing, difficult decisions as they temporarily suspended operations or pivoted to remain open in compliance with rapidly changing regulations.

Despite weathering changes that we did not anticipate and that were beyond our control, there is a collective will to emerge stronger and more resilient than when we went in. It is widely known that ‘healthy’ companies significantly outperform their peers[1]. In these turbulent times, the value of healthy, high-performing teams that are committed to protecting the long-term viability of the business by finding creative ways to service customers and support co-workers, is more evident than ever.

Regardless of your starting point, the pandemic created a sense of focus and urgency that can serve as a catalyst for better organizational health. There is a proliferation of articles full of tips to help businesses stabilize and thrive despite the challenging times. Here are some ideas drawn from a few great sources. Links to the full articles are included in the footnotes for more information.

  • ‘Personalism’ over ‘professionalism’ … Patrick Lencioni, founder of The Table Group and author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, writes about the merits of personalism[2] over professionalism, particularly in this period. Remote work and Zoom teleported us squarely into the homes of our co-workers - with our children, pets, and life’s daily messes often in the background. Further, employers in essential or re-opened businesses are prioritizing the physical and emotional safety of their employees over short-term profits. Formalities are fading and we are increasingly embracing each other as individuals. Teams that give each other room to balance their personal and professional lives, assume positive intent and prioritize mental and physical health and well-being, will create stronger bonds and greater loyalty. Leaders who take a genuine personal interest in the welfare of their employees, who take time to check-in and show some vulnerability themselves, will create a personalized, ‘human’ connection that will have lasting effects.
  • Lead with clarity, empathy, and an open-mind: The massive disruption of COVID-19 changed the way most of us do business. Priorities came into greater focus, plans and resources changed, and we had no choice but to rethink old habits or patterns. Some of the resulting changes are positive: accelerated use of technology, for example, or proof that some work can be done remotely without sacrificing productivity. In an article titled “4 Actions to Be a Strong Leader During COVID-19 Disruption[3]”, Mary Mesaglio of research thinktank Smarter with Gartner writes that leading effectively in these times requires clarity, empathy and an openness to ‘nonbinary’ solutions to problems to support better decisions.
  • Act with “deliberate calm and bounded optimism”: In one article of a six-part series entitled “Leadership in a Crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges[4]”, McKinsey & Company guides leaders to maintain a positive vision while being prepared to confront uncomfortable truths. Coining this “bounded optimism”, they describe how to blend confidence and hope for the future with the realties of the current situation. They write that leaders often underestimate how much impact they have on their teams, particularly in times of crisis. Effective leadership requires that we process large amounts of complex or ambiguous information, make decisions with the best information available and stay steady in the face of strong emotions, including our own. This ‘deliberate calm’ requires conscious effort and an ability to recognize and manage stress. It also requires compassion and acceptance of the fears and plights of others. Healthy teams are led, by example, by this conscious approach to balanced optimism.
  • Show personalized gratitude, often: Healthy teams operate with a heightened sense of professional intimacy. They freely and genuinely express gratitude for the contributions of others. These days, common gestures of appreciation such as pizza lunches or social events are not as easy to pull off, with remote workers and social distancing. Yet expressing gratitude, on a personalized basis, has never been more important. A July 28, 2020 article by Forbes entitled “Employee Appreciation With Covid-19 Can Be Free – And Is Needed More Than Ever”[5], author Bill Conerly provides tips to make the gratitude meaningful: make it specific (describe the particular act taken instead of a generic ‘great work’), make sure it is earned (employees can spot superficial gestures quickly and unearned praise can be demoralizing), and make it public. Wider gestures of appreciation, to the entire company or a certain team, should be creative and be guided by feedback from the team. Regardless of how it is shown, healthy teams take the time to express gratitude when it is warranted.

The collective toll of COVID-19 on our communities and on society as a whole will leave an indelible imprint for years to come. Business owners and leaders who take purposeful action in these difficult times to foster healthy, high-performing teams will position their organizations to emerge stronger and more resilient than ever.

[1] McKinsey Quarterly: Organizational health: A fast track to performance improvement; September 7, 2017 | Article

[2] Chief Executive magazine: Toward a New and Better Normal by Patrick Lencioni, May 22, 2020

[3] Smarter with Gartner: 4 Actions to Be a Strong Leader During COVID-19 Disruption. Contributor: Mary Mesaglio.

[4] McKinsey & Company: “How to demonstrate clam and optimism in a crisis”, part of a series titled “Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges” April 30, 2020

[5] Forbes Article: Employee Appreciation With Covid-19 Can Be Free – And Is Needed More Than Ever, by Bill Conerly. July 28, 2020.

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