In just a few weeks we will be welcoming staff members back for the start of a new year. While the start of this year may not be as uncertain and stressful as a year ago, there remain myriad questions to be answered and challenges to be met in the months ahead. At the same time, many staff members have yet to fully recover from the exhaustion and frustrations they felt as the past year ended.
Our leadership challenge is to find ways to re-engage and re-energize employees across our organization to serve students who need them now as much or more than ever. The fact is that we cannot improve the learning and lives of students without supporting and reconnecting adults who work with them.
Fortunately, recent research from the London Business School may provide some useful hints to help us meet this challenge. Despite the context of the research in the business world, people are people. What moves and motivates us is likely to be more alike than different.
The research was conducted during the height of the pandemic and focused on what led employees to be more or less engaged despite the life and work challenges they faced. The researchers were able to isolate three key leadership behaviors that appeared to make the greatest difference on the level of employee engagement over time.
First, the study found that our perspective as leaders matters more than we might think. Adopting an optimistic, opportunistic attitude during times of crisis and challenge can make an important difference. If we treat the challenges we face as permission to innovate, explore, adjust, and improve, we project energy and possibility. The researchers noted something called “emotional contagion,” a phenomenon in which emotions and attitudes are psychologically contagious. The emotions and perspectives of those around us, especially people who are important to us, can lift our spirits and inspire us, or drain our energy and leave us depressed. If we want to lift the spirits of those in our organizations and inspire people to engage, we must adopt and project the attitudes and perspectives we want to see. Of course, we need to be realistic and not ignore the reality we face, but we do not have to allow ourselves to be defeated by it.
A second important finding was that inquiring about and staying informed of people’s lives outside of work matters. Challenges remaining after the pandemic are not confined to what is happening at work. Staff members may still be dealing with family loss and disruption. Lingering aftereffects of the virus may be an ongoing challenge. Of course, life outside of work with its predictable challenges and pressures also influences how people feel about work, how much energy they have available to invest, and other choices they must make. The researchers found that inquiring about and remaining interested in and informed about employees’ lives outside of work makes a significant difference in the level of investment and engagement people feel in their work. Importantly, our inquiries need to be authentic and we need to avoid prying into areas that employees might feel are private.
The third key finding was that we need to reinforce the importance of the work people are doing and its connection to the larger purpose of the organization. We might assume that people know and see how their work is important in the larger picture, but they also need to hear it regularly from leaders. Reminding people of the crucial difference they make in the lives of students, how they are building a future for today’s learners, and the long-term importance of having an educated public are important messages that need to be repeated and reinforced regularly. Interestingly, the researchers discovered that connections to and internalization of the purpose of the work not only better prepare people to navigate adversity and uncertainty, but they can also lead to better ideas and innovative strategies for improvement.
In the coming weeks we will be “setting the stage” for the year ahead. How we start the year will have an important influence on how the year unfolds. Now is the time to think about what we can do to build energy, invite engagement, and prepare the path for a successful year.
Cable, D. & Gino, F. (2021, June 22) What to do if your employees have switched off. London Business School. https://www.london.edu/think/what-to-do-if-your-employees-have-switched-off