Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick on Team Engagement During a Crisis
Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick are co-founders of The Culture Works, an organization focused on helping businesses solve their employee engagement and culture problems. They have also co-authored a number of New York Times best-selling books such as All In, The Carrot Principle and Leading with Gratitude. They’ve worked with some of the biggest names on the planet, and the regular, robust testimonials they receive from their clients is proof of their concept. One of their key research findings has been that gratitude is essential to engaging employees and fostering a healthy work environment. But how can you express gratitude when you, as a leader, are feeling so much stress? We sat down with Chester and Adrian to ask how to keep things light during heavy times.
We all know we’re in a crisis right now, one that’s probably unprecedented in more ways than we even realize. What is the biggest challenge with regards to management in the time of COVID that you’re currently seeing managers wrestle with?
Adrian: Well, it is interesting. Chester and I put out a LinkedIn poll recently and had 700 people respond. By far, when we asked, “what’s the biggest challenge your organization is facing right now—culture, performance, motivation—the number one answer, by a mile, was anxiety. We’re dealing with heightened levels of uncertainty, fear, and trepidation in employees. That is by far the biggest concern we’re seeing.
Chester: We gave the respondents lots of options, and anxiety was almost half the responses.
I think too, with that anxiety, people are worried about a lot of things right now: are they going to have to go back to work? How are they going to educate their kids? How are they going to look after elderly members of their family? Do they have job security? How’s the company doing? So you put all that together, and then you overlay that with the protests and other issues that are going on throughout the country and so on, and it just seems like the body-blows keep coming. I mean, I was laughing the other day that, “Oh, and by the way, there’s a meteor on the way!”
So for leaders to be able to deal with that in a way that keeps their people engaged and valued and supported is, I think, by far the biggest issue on their plate. And we’ve dealt for 20 years on what a lot of people have called soft skills and “nice to haves.” Well, right now the human element in management and business is no longer a soft skill—it’s a hard skill. And it’s no longer a “nice to have,” it’s an absolute must have.
Adrian: You’re exactly right. We used to say, “you leave your personal life at home when you come in the office.” That’s no longer an option. We’ve got to show more care and compassion than ever before. And it’s not just, “how’re you doing?” as you pass in the hallway. It’s “how are you doing today?” And then digging below that “fine” response. You need to say, “Really, how are you doing?” In addition to that, you also need to be vulnerable yourself in saying, “well, these are the things that I’m concerned about,” and making sure people understand that you’re compassionate and you’re able to listen.
Chester: This is the first time where there’s been a crisis that impacted everyone in the organization; it wasn’t just the factory workers, or just sales, or just research and development departments. CEOs are working from home too, and they’ve also got kids or grandkids to take care of. All of a sudden, everybody’s got the same issue. So the empathy level for leaders I think is very high right now because they’re worried about getting their kids back in school too. They’re worried about bringing people back to the office. They’re worried about, “how much office space do we need,” and “how do we still create engaging products with our customers?” So COVID really is unprecedented in that aspect as well. You know, you’ve got CEOs and senior executives who are dealing with the same issues as factory workers and salespeople and so on. It’s not just the rank and file that are anxious. It’s everybody.
This is one of the first times that C-suite executives and hourly employees are facing the same issues, which I think helps leaders actually become more relatable to their employees. I want you to give me a real life example for how, as a leader, I can still show compassion and empathy even when my employees are remote.
Adrian: One of the things that we recommend that managers do to help foster team engagement is this: get face-to-face. Even though your people are remote, instead of just a quick call or an email, get face-to-face with people and ask how they’re doing. Whether they seem to be doing great or not, we can still have that personal touch by creating these video connections for now.
I was just talking with a sales leader recently and he was telling me all of his woes, and I had to say, “it’s time for you to bring your team together.” Even if it’s coming in to the office once a week, or meeting together outside, socially distant with masks. Most teams need some sort of connection. In some areas of the country people have to still be very careful, but you can bring people together carefully. There are times where that human connection is just so important.
Chester: We had one CEO tell us that he had a remote worker whose husband had passed away. And he got to talking to her—spending time with her on a Zoom call—and she got emotional. He says, “Hey, well, what’s going on? How can I help?” She says, “you know what? It’s been three months since I’ve had a hug.” And it was heartbreaking. So I think leaders more than ever need to be really intentional and they need to be disciplined in the time that they spend with their people. Ask yourself “who haven’t I talked to lately?” and like Adrian said, having that dialogue with them— “how are you doing today? How can I help?” Another great question I love that leaders ask often is “what do you think?” That helps teammates feel valued and remembered.
So, breaking it down: there are two things that need to go up in order for remote team engagement to increase. Communication needs to go up exponentially, because when there’s no communication, the void gets filled with rumor, innuendo and fear. Never good. The second thing that needs to go up are expressions of gratitude.
As managers, you need to show employees that you’re grateful for their time. Things like, “Let’s get together” is an expression of gratitude. “What do you think?” is an expression of gratitude. “How can I help?” is gratitude. In our researching our book, Leading with Gratitude, it became evident that it’s almost impossible to be in a state of gratitude serving people and be anxious at the same time. You can’t keep both of those emotions in your head simultaneously. So when leaders are intentional about asking the right questions and being disciplined around making sure they’re touching base with everybody on their team—those are our wonderful tools. And like Adrian said, it’s, it’s face to face on Zoom or Skype or Microsoft Teams. And when you can bring your people together, there’s no substitute for human contact. And hopefully we’ll be able to get to more of that, sooner than later.
Tell me a few more examples when you talked about leaders being vulnerable as well. Partly for me, when we talk about this being a pandemic, and we think about that being the crisis—each of us know people that are dealing with their own personal hurricanes in the middle of this. So how do I vulnerably lead with that sense of empathy and unpeel those other “storms” that my employees may be experiencing without getting too personal?
Adrian: It’s a great question. There’s an old saying to “assume half the people you meet are going through some personal struggle.” Now you’ve got to assume it’s everybody that’s going through a personal struggle.
There are a couple of ways that a leader can help with this. First, talk about your own vulnerabilities. You need to talk about the things that may be bothering you—and that’s typically anathema to leaders. We want to be the “tough” people and think we have all the answers. Well, we don’t anymore. And what we have to say now is, “look, we are in a dark time. Whether it’s social unrest, whether it’s personal things we’re dealing with, whether it’s the pandemic or the fall-out from the economy, there’s a lot of things going on and here’s how it’s affecting me as a human being.” What a lot of leaders will tell us is, “my people can talk to me about anything!” And they probably do, except for their really personal kind of mental health conditions, stresses, worries, anxieties; those things they don’t talk to you about. In fact, what we tell leaders is “Great. Think about the last time somebody came to you with a mental health issue.” Chances are, they can’t remember that, so they assume everyone is okay.
We know that the statistics show half of the adults in America right now are experiencing mental health issues at a disorder level. And if you can’t think of somebody who’s come to you saying “I’m feeling depressed, I’m feeling anxious, I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m ready to burn out,” then you’re probably are not as open on these issues as you think you are. And the only way to really begin that is to be vulnerable yourself.
The second thing is to be open when others are talking about their concerns. If somebody says, “I need a mental health day,” you celebrate that. You know, as we were working on our latest book, one worker said to us, “If I broke a leg, nobody would question me. If I had a cold, nobody would question me. But if I say, ‘I need a mental health day,’ I’ll never hear the end of it. No, thank you.”
Chester: How do you do it without getting too personal? You have to get personal. Vulnerability means I’m sharing my personal story. We were talking to Chris Rainey—who’s got this wonderful company in London—he said, “I’ve been anxious for forever and would never admit it.” He had a podcast, and during an interview with a leader from another organization, the topic of anxiety was brought up. Chris said, “I admitted that I experience anxiety too, on my podcast, to my entire organization.” He said the reaction of his people was remarkable. They said, “because you talked about it and because you’re a leader and you got personal and vulnerable, it gave us permission to do the same.” Well, his company is a much safer, healthier place now because he shared his story. And that’s what leaders need to do now. They may not have a story, but I guarantee somebody in their family, somebody they’ve worked with, has a story. And when they can relate to that and share it and show vulnerability, that opens the floodgates and gives people permission. And boy, it reduces the stigma around mental health.
So how can we eliminate some of that anxiety? For me, part of that is just returning to normalcy in small ways—setting up that “fun” meeting,” facilitating more informal conversations, playing games together over Zoom, etc. What are some “fun” things that an organization can do to help alleviate some of this anxiety we’re talking about?
Chester: We’ve seen organizations do a lot of team building activities. You know, they’ll have a costume day, or it’s Toga day or whatever. Another one I thought was fun was a “give me a tour of your home office” activity, where everyone walks around with their laptop and shows their workspaces. Another that I thought was really clever was a “wine and whine session” at the end of the week. It was like Friday, late afternoon, and you go get your favorite wine and you can whine about anything. All those kinds of things are kind of fun. I’ll tell you one thing that I love that a client did: she would randomly send packages to her employees, whether it was pizza or a gift basket or whatever, and these little random acts of kindness really impacted her team. Helping people realize that, even though they’re not in the workplace, we’re still remembering them. You’ve got some good ones, Adrian, what are your thoughts?
Adrian: Yeah, everything you said is great. I think it’s good to keep it light. If you’re bringing food into the office, send it to everybody who works remotely as well. One of the things we hear too, is to open up your Zoom meeting rooms—maybe 10 minutes early—and then just allow people to come in and chat. You’re replicating the old water cooler chat that way. It can be very powerful to recreate the organic interactions that used to happen where people would just pop up and say, “Hey Janice, can you help me with this?” Because that just isn’t happening these days with mostly remote work.
Chester: And we’ve all experienced the interruptions, too. You know, if your cat jumps up on your desk, or your kid runs in. Don’t worry about it! Have some fun with it—hold up your cat for everyone to see, or go and chase your kid down. You know, initially when we were doing zoom, it had to be so business-like, and now it’s more like, “Don’t make me stand up—I don’t have any pants on!”
One more that I want you both to answer, because you’ve really kind of hinted at some of these as well—I want you to both tell me something that a leader should stop doing today and something they should start doing today.
Adrian: So, start doing today. I would argue that today, you need to start understanding how your people are feeling. One of the things we say with gratitude is that it’s really not just about saying “thank you.” That’s not what gratitude is. Gratitude starts with seeing the value that is being created. So, say something specific to one of your employees like, “I want to thank you for the new marketing campaign. We’ve reached people we never thought possible before. It was so creative,” etc. When you are specific about what they’ve done, when as a leader you are seeing what they have created, that is such a powerful way to lead.
So many managers miss this. They feel like, “well, that’s her job. We hired her as the marketing person.” And that’s not what is going to keep people, especially when they’re remote. They need so many more pats on the back to let them know they’re going in the right direction.
Chester: I think one of the things that leaders should stop doing is assuming negative intent. Bosses act like, “you’ve made a mistake and you’ve ruined my day,” or they’ll say, “why didn’t you get back to me?” or “How did you miss that deadline?” Stop assuming negative intent from your team and start assuming positive intent. Look, employees have a lot going on, they aren’t trying to make your life miserable.
Another thing leaders have to stop doing is when they say, “absolutely take time for your family, the weekend’s the weekend.” And then they send out a blizzard of emails on Saturday morning, but with the caveat “don’t open until Monday.” Yeah, right! Everyone’s going to open that email before Monday. So, one of the things leaders need to stop doing is saying, “you can take time for your family,” and then not doing it themselves. Practice what you preach.
Adrian: This becomes increasingly difficult when the line between home and work is, for many people, very blurred. This ties in to what I’d say leaders need to stop doing: stop giving your best self at work and then giving your worst self at home. Don’t let the stress of the current situation suck all the energy out of you to the point where you can’t be happy or show up well at home. I see a lot of that, unfortunately, where people really are trying so hard to keep their energy up at work. In this uncertain environment, people naturally say, “I want to make sure I keep my job.” And I’ve had leaders tell me, “I get home and I am just so drained.” And they’re not giving their best selves where, perhaps they should—with their loved ones.
Chester: Adrian’s got a great tip that he uses often. He says, “when you walk through the door, or you come back home, just be happy to see everybody.” You know, saying things like: “Hey, it’s so good to be home! How’re you doing?” That first impression is so important, especially with your loved ones. Adrian brings it up often, and then it’s a great reminder for me. Especially now when sometimes the commute is just walking out from your home office to the kitchen, right?
Chester Elton’s new Methods course on Team Management is available now as well as actionable content from Elton in Micro-Methods and The Collective. They are both workplace experts on corporate culture, employee engagement and leadership and travel the world helping leaders succeed. You can also pick up Elton and Gostick’s new book “Leading With Gratitude” on Amazon, and contact them on their websites at adriangostick.com and chesterelton.com.