How to lead the public sector workforce in the COVID-era

By Shannon Jenkins

February 17, 2021


Public sector leaders can overcome the workforce challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic by understanding the importance of empathy, recognising that a diverse organisation is a successful organisation, and learning how to adapt to a virtual setting, according to Professor Ian Williamson.

Speaking at the 2021 BiiG conference in Brisbane on Tuesday, Williamson — Dean of the University of California’s Merage Business School — noted that the new COVID-era requires a new approach to leadership.

During this current period, the workforce is dispersed, diverse, and distressed, which Williamson argued reflects the challenges that leaders face in this new world.

“It is critical for us to appreciate that we as societies have gone through huge periods of trauma. And that that trauma is not just going to disappear as COVID improves, but that people will have to make sense of this and they will have to gain confidence around this,” he said.

“How will we, as leaders, create an environment that actually deals with anxiety and stress that individuals have had to deal with over the last 12 months? This is the challenge that I think we’re facing.”

Williamson said there are three points leaders must consider to be able to lead in this environment: understanding the importance of voice, empathy and trust; viewing inclusion as a must; and mastering the role of being a virtual leader.

Voice, empathy, trust

During this period of economic uncertainty, unrest, and ‘post-truth’, employees are in need of a sense of connection, a sense of understanding, and a sense of empathy, according to Williamson.

He reflected on a recent study which looked at the relationship between employee attitudes, engagement, business outcomes and performance outcomes over a period of almost 20 years.

Two critical periods of recession occurred during the study — — the dot-com crash and the global financial crisis. The study found that during those recessions, the organisations with high levels of positive engagement outperformed organisations that did not have positive engagement.

Further, the relationship between job attitudes, engagement and performance was stronger during those periods of time than during periods of economic and societal disruption, Williamson noted.

“It really speaks to how the importance of leaders who can create high levels of engagement is heightened during those periods where there is greater level of distress in our society,” he said.

“And so this issue of empathy, and voice, and trust — it’s always important. But it’s perhaps more important during these periods and it raises interesting questions about how we develop and select leaders.”

He encouraged leaders to ask themselves three questions during this COVID era.

Firstly, how are they creating processes, practices and opportunities that enable employees to have a voice about important decisions?

“What we know is that during periods of great distress individuals need to have the ability to have some control, or shape, in some way, their environment,” Williamson said.

“And those leaders that are able to create those opportunities for people to have a say, for them to express their opinions systematically — consistently — those are the leaders that are perhaps more important in these periods of time.”

Secondly, what are the leaders’ awareness and considerations of employees’ professional and personal pressures, and how are they asking individuals about these issues?

“It’s impossible for you to show empathy for someone if you are not appreciative of the situations or the challenges they are facing.”

Finally, how do leaders provide opportunities for flexibility in terms of how employees go about performing their tasks?

This comes down to trust between the leader and their team member Williamson said.

“Do I trust your skill set? Do I trust your commitment? Do I trust your motivation? And if I do so, I’m much more likely to give you a lot of flexibility around how you go about doing what you do,” he said.

“And if I exhibit that trust, the dividend I get from that is a reciprocation, which means that you will look to me and say, ‘I will go over and beyond to make sure that I’m able to achieve’. And that ultimately is the nature of that relationship.”

Read more: Making the case for diversity: what is the evidence?

Inclusion as a must

Organisations must move beyond the question of whether managing a diverse workforce is going to be helpful for them, or their obligations around managing a diverse workforce, Williamson said. Instead, they need to view diversity and inclusion as a must.

“This is a characteristic of a successful organisation, and those organisations that do not formally recognise this as being imperative to their success are the ones that are going to struggle and fall behind,” he said.

“And it is that imperative to our success which motivates organisations to begin to have practices and policies which formally acknowledged this and actually make it conceivable for them to do anything different.”

One organisation that has recently recognised this, Williamson noted, is the ABC. This week the national broadcaster launched diversity and inclusion commissioning guidelines for screen content, underpinned by the principle “nothing about us without us”.

The guidelines require producers to demonstrate how their content reflects diversity and inclusion in its subject matter or cast, as well as diversity in key creative, production and crew roles.

Williamson noted that the ABC has highlighted that “excellence comes in a wide variety of shapes and forms”.

“And I think this is just another interesting perspective which the organisation is internalising. We know that organisations that are going to be successful are going to be the ones that are inclusive,” he said.

Mastering being a virtual leader

During the pandemic, Williamson and some colleagues at the University of Queensland, the Australian Catholic University and the University of Melbourne conducted research exploring diverse teams and how they performed in virtual environments.

They found that diverse teams that interacted virtually had higher levels of trust than teams that interacted face to face. The theory is that virtual interactions present opportunities for reflection, allowing people from a range of backgrounds, languages and cultures to develop more normative behaviour about how they share their opinions, “which oftentimes is lost when we think about our typical face to face interactions”, Williamson said.

“What we found is these teams that utilise more virtual interaction actually had higher levels of trust. And this higher level of trust actually drove higher levels of performance,” he said.

This suggests that virtual interactions can benefit diverse workforces.

The study also found that diverse teams which had a shared leadership dynamic rather than one team leader were more likely to develop a sense of trust. This is because shared leadership provides opportunities for people to have more information, and allows individuals to consider the perspectives of others.

“We found that this level of trust was also related to higher levels of team performance. So again, it speaks to a very different dynamic when we’re thinking about the work environments that we have today — more virtual, more diverse. And in these settings, different types of leadership might be more appropriate,” Williamson said.

In face to face settings, individuals who are extroverted, enthusiastic, have good social skills, and are motivated often emerge as the leaders. Another recent study found that this is not the case in virtual settings.

Williamson noted that in a virtual setting, the activities that team members engage in tend to determine who emerges as a leader.

“It was the individuals who took on more coordination activities, who were more likely to provide assistance to team members when they were trying to achieve a task, who tracked team progress, who provided updates on team resources [that emerged as leaders],” Williamson said.

“And what this research is really showing is how in virtual environments, there’s a shift in importance. It’s more about what the leader does and less about what the leader says.”

Williamson said that the three things to consider in order to master being a virtual leader include appreciating that virtual leadership is less hierarchical; recognising that responsibilities will be more shared; and realising that it’s more about what is done and less about what is said.

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