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Resilience under COVID-19: dare to craft empathic directiveness

Datum:30 juni 2020
Auteur:Nevena Ivanovic
The craft of balancing control and vulnerability
The craft of balancing control and vulnerability

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders continue to face challenges in managing the effects of the health crisis and keeping their organization under control. Meanwhile, for most of the employees, the new working arrangements have already become the new normal. Employees continue to work in the changed circumstances and, as before, they face stressors and disruptions inherent to their jobs. The major difference is that many of these usual disruptions require novel solutions under the pandemic. Yet, default reactions to adversities might not work under these changes conditions – leaders should dare to face their vulnerability and enrich their directiveness with empathy.

When stressors accumulate, increased directive leadership and centralized decision-making are often a default response. Indeed, when faced with life-threatening circumstances such as pandemics, many of us behave more rigidly in our need to regain control of our lives [1]. For example, we distrust dissimilar others, we seek a strong figure to provide us with the structure and meaning, our teams lower intergroup communication, and our organizations turn to a command-and-control structure. This could be considered a logical response - when surrounded by uncertainty, we would not aim to respond with even more uncertainty. Rather, we would surround ourselves with what is known and predictable, and restrain from risky or explorative behaviors. These reserved reactions could even be beneficial. For example, limiting novel actions could help avoid rushed decisions caused by the lack of reliable information. Further, directive leadership and strict procedures could enhance the efficiency of information flow and decision-making.

However, when the pandemic-related challenges join the internal organizational stressors, it is increasingly difficult for the leaders to maintain this controlled and directive response and manage it all. Moreover, employees working in the geographically dispersed teams further challenge this. Under these conditions, it is impossible for one central unit to timely sense all threats coming from different parts of the organization and regain control over them. Hence, some threats need to be resolved locally rather than centrally. This calls for a decentralized structure that gives more control, responsibility, and information sharing agency to the employees. Further, the incoming disruptions under the COVID-19 conditions might require novel, creative and improvised responses. Yet, it is difficult to quickly develop and act on creative solutions to the emergent local problems in the command-and-control environment with strict procedures in place.

To overcome this conundrum, leaders need to balance their impulse to maintain the appearance of strength and control with the efforts to encourage bottom-up information flow and release employees from the inhibited creativity under threat. While the former is a well-known or even an automatic response under increased threat, finding the way to empower the agency and creativity of the employees in these conditions is a challenge for most. Strengthening a shared social identity [2], and cohesion through empathy [3] are expected to release fear, tension, and passivity, and include employees in the decision-making process. Specifically, leaders should invest in building a sense of togetherness by naming the shared emotions, fears, knowns and unknowns, and emphasize that employees’ input is needed and valued. Despite the potential discomfort of practicing empathy and honesty and expressing vulnerability, this could help employees let go of the inherent need to draw the sense for security and meaning primarily from their seemingly invincible leaders, and awaken the feeling of personal responsibility, vigilance and drive to contribute to disruption detection and resolution. In short, leaders should aim to “outsource” some of the control, and while doing so, employees should be empowered to create the structure and the sense of control themselves.

The craft of balancing control and vulnerability should result in an organization where both leaders and employees know how to delegate and take responsibility and control, and trust each other in doing so. This ability to flexibly change decision-making structure and adapt it to the severity of the disruption is expected to increase resilience both during the current pandemic and in the future instances of increased environmental threats. An important step in developing such flexibility could be in being honest about our unavoidable vulnerability in the face of uncertainty and learning how to gain strength from it, rather than drown in it.

Nevena Ivanović (nevena.ivanovic rug.nl, Twitter: @NevenaIvanovic_) is a PhD candidate at the department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior at the University of Groningen, working in the team with Gerben van der Vegt, Thom de Vries and Dirk Pieter van Donk. Her work is about the role of social network structure and dynamics in building organizational and team resilience.

[1] Staw, B. M., Sandelands, L. E., & Dutton, J. E. (1981). Threat rigidity effects in organizational behavior: A multilevel analysis. Administrative science quarterly, 501-524.

[2] Van Bavel, J. J., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., ... & Drury, J. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-12.

[3] König, A., Graf-Vlachy, L., Bundy, J., & Little, L. M. (2020). A blessing and a curse: How CEOs’ trait empathy affects their management of organizational crises. Academy of Management Review, 45(1), 130-153.