How CALM Leadership is Key to Navigating Uncharted Paths

No-one needs reminded that with the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic, these are unprecedented times. Amidst this, the business world continues to turn very quickly and leaders do not have the luxury of time to devise a sophisticated strategy to help their workforce adapt, manage uncertainty and remain motivated and engaged.

Whilst there many be many questions still to be answered, there are a number of key things that leaders and managers can do that will make a huge difference in leading teams through times of challenge.

I have pulled these elements together into a model called CALM. This article also includes key messages from Leaders and CEOs from around the world published in Real Leaders Magazine on how best to lead teams through these unique times.

Uncertainty and Change

The human brain does not like uncertainty, and these are very uncertain times.

Uncertainty puts the brain into a threat state where we find it hard to think logically, creatively or relax and restore our energy. Coupled with that, the brain also does not like change. Although we all have different tolerance levels to change, even the most adaptive of individuals need to expend extra energy getting used to new environments, conditions or thought patterns.

Workers are currently having to adapt to unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change both in their jobs and their personal lives. Juggling work and home-schooling children, worrying about or responding to the vulnerable in our family networks and society or struggling to keep businesses afloat, the challenges are certainly very real.

Whilst in our modern world, our lives and working conditions are extremely diverse, it is helpful to remember that as humans, we have three universal psychological needs – Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. We need a sense of control in our own lives, the skills to face challenges and healthy relationships to provide meaning and support.

With the understanding that the workforce may be in a threat state, strong leadership has never been more important. To that end, my CALM model – Communication, Authenticity, Listening and Motivation – will hopefully provide a quick reminder of the key elements of strong and containing leadership.

1. Communication

Probably the most important element of this model, carefully considered communication is vital. In the early days of significant change, more frequent communication is needed.

Being visible is extremely important, especially if your workforce are working remotely.

Chris Hirst Global CEO of Havas Creative explains;

Distance Working can quickly become disorientating, your teams will want to see you and feel regular emotional reassurance and get practical direction.’

Communication about where to find support to learn skills necessary for a new way of working is essential and will meet the core psychological need of competence. I am a firm believer that confidence comes from competence and this is in part why humans find change difficult. When we feel competent, we feel that we have some control in our lives, which takes our brains out of threat state.

Chris Hirst points out the importance of ensuring that, even with remote working and social distancing, employees have the opportunity to socialise. With so much research pointing to the essential bonding role ‘water cooler conversations’ have in high performing cultures, building in opportunities for general chat is very important.

Hirst states;

“Working in an office is about more than sitting in meetings: it’s chatting, socialising, pub-quizzes, Pilates, laughing and making friends. Don’t forget to find ways to do some of this remotely – technology makes it easier than ever.”

Kevin Crawford, Coach and Former Fire Chief, describes how leaders need to use communication that expresses both understanding and confidence

Extraordinary leaders need to be the “Comforter and Chief” to give great hope, and have a steady hand to keep responses appropriate.”

Lastly, communicating gratitude to the team is very important. Feeling recognised for our achievements or efforts creates engagement.

Adrain Gostick CEO of The Culture Works explains;

“In stressful times, we are often not conscious enough of all the many people who are helping us. When we are more aware and more thankful, our teams will be more engaged, focused, and productive.”

2. Authenticity

CEO and author Michael Brody-Waite urges leaders to “practice rigorous authenticity” stating “Be real with your team and go first by sharing what your fears are during this time, instead of pretending you have it all figured out or have all the answers.”

Leaders who understand that being strong means being able to accept that they are human, and who show this human side to the people that they are leading, will strengthen organisational bonds, so important for resilient work cultures. This strength in vulnerability builds relatedness in organisation, giving people permission to voice their own concerns.

Honesty is the cornerstone of Authentic Leadership. Be honest about what you know and what you don’t. People will easily pick up if they believe information is being kept from them, making them feel anxious. Even if it is bad news, be honest.

Debra Benton president of Benton Management Resources explains “Be honest to establish the true reputation of being honest because leaders do well with truthful information flow (virtual or in person).”

Authenticity in leadership means also knowing yourself well and knowing when you need help or to take a break. Although we remain hopeful, the ramifications of COVID-19 are likely to be felt throughout 2020 and beyond. If leaders are to remain resilient over this period, self-care is not a luxury but an essential element of the battle plan. The four pillars of eat, sleep, move and connect have never been more important. Self-care also includes having people around you that you can trust that you can open up to, seek counsel and offload to.

3. Listening

Sachin Gupta CEO of Hacker Earth understands the importance of listening with empathy

Working remotely, combined with the fear of infection can be psychologically draining. It’s super important for leadership to show empathy in times like this.”

All too quickly we can jump to trying to help people find solutions. Apart from the fact that currently some problems cannot be easily solved, it is a much-underrated truth that truly listening to someone is a solution in itself.

Emotionally Intelligent Leaders understand this and in return get support and loyalty from their teams. Even two or three minutes of undivided attention can be all that it takes to help people feel heard.

With large work forces, this is not always easy, however if leaders listen to managers and they listen to those they manage, a positive cascading effect is created. Companies that can create a listening culture with their workforce, will be building autonomy and relatedness.

Listening carefully to the perspectives of the employees could also provide vital pieces of information that add to insight and enhance the overall strategy. Often it is those on the ground, doing the job, that are best able to flag up issues and indeed, see solutions. If a team comes up with solution themselves they far more likely to adapt to change, building autonomy and competence.



4. Motivation 

Keeping teams motivated and productive is the fourth part of the jigsaw. We cannot allow this current situation to impact our ability to remain focused on outcomes. Some people will respond to change or uncertainty by becoming demotivated and feeling hopeless. To keep our moods from taking a dip, we need to focus on what we can achieve, enhancing overall levels of autonomy and competence.

In the midst of uncertainty, leaders who enable their teams to set short term achievable goals, will maintain a vital sense of progress. Small wins, even if they are not the usual wins, provide vital bursts of dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, keeping people feeling motivated and upbeat. Marking these small wins, even if it is a quick email at the end of the day noting the successes of that day, will have a marked impact on overall mood.

Chris Hirst explains;

“The military know this well – whatever is happening their teams are always active: working, doing, thinking, learning, socialising and innovating. A good leader keeps the team on the move (even if virtually)”.

Karla Jo Helms, CEO of JoTo PR Disruptors also focused on the importance of keeping busy; “We don’t use the crisis to sit back and wait to be told what to do, we use it to proactively take action and keep our people industrious and helping others.” 

Lastly, motivation comes from reminding teams of the ‘why’ of their work. Work imbued with true meaning turns a job into a vocation. Reminding teams that their efforts are integral for the good of others or the survival of the business, can be enough to provide meaning based on our need for relatedness.

Humans are designed to work together in groups to overcome adversity. Although this may be in a different form in the weeks and months ahead, remembering the core psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness, and applying the CALM model will give leaders a map to navigate through these uncertain times.

Catherine McIntosh is the founder of STRIVE & THRIVE CONSULTING.  She is a Consultant, Trainer and Writer on Performance and Resilience for Teams.  Strive & Thrive provide a range of programmes Building Peak Performance and Resilience for Teams.
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