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Creating the New ‘Preferred’ Normal – three Steps to Making it stick

Rob Cross, Leadership Coach - Rob Cross Consulting
man operating laptop on top of table

“It’s amazing,” Jenny, who’s an HR Director in a multinational financial services firm said to me during our catch up over Zoom, “in amongst all the challenges that have come with COVID, we’ve seen changes in behaviour that I just didn’t think were possible.”

“Such as?” I asked, feeling curious.

“Well, our leaders are communicating and staying connected with their people far better than they ever have before. Our teams are working better together then they have before, and, we’re all making decisions far quicker than we ever have before,” she stated.

“It’s as if,” Jenny continued, “the crisis has helped people across our business become the leaders we hoped they would be.”

Sitting there staring into the screen, I felt delighted at what I was hearing. Through my conversations with Jenny over the last six months, I know how much of a challenge it had been to shift the behaviour of the leaders in her company.

“Now the challenge is, how do we make it stick?”

In this final statement, Jenny hit on the perennial challenge confronting all the HR Directors I’ve been working with over the last month. They’ve all seen positive shifts in the behaviour of leaders, but now we’re entering into the next phase of the COVID crisis, they’re not sure how to embed it as the new ‘preferred’ normal.

Three steps to making it stick

Whilst I am not in any way a fan of the term “new normal”, I think that if we change it to be called the new ‘preferred’ normal, it can be used as a force for good. That is, the challenge that Jenny referenced above is really a question of how we consciously design and embed the attitude and behaviours we want our leaders to embody, leveraging what has already been initiated through the COVID crisis? My response to this question is that there are three steps to take:

1: Be Clear

Before we can start to embed any new attitudes or behaviour, it’s important to gain absolute clarity on what we’re trying to embed. This includes giving recognition and describing clearly to people what it is they are doing, saying and how they are acting in the moments where this new attitude or behaviour is being displayed. It also includes describing the positive routines and habits that have formed during the current post COVID working world in the midst of a multitude of other pressures such as adapting briliiantly to remote working, and squeezing in home schooling to their day-to-day work life.

For example, I’ve heard many times over the last few months that leaders are being far more communicative with their people.  This is being displayed through them very consciously having frequent check-in sessions both at a team and 1-2-1 level. During these check-ins, which often last no more than 15 minutes, I’ve heard that the leader asks open questions about what’s going on in people’s lives, how their people are feeling, what they are enjoying, and also, what they are struggling with. In the feedback I’ve heard from leaders, it has been through this singular focus on checking in on the welfare of their people that new connections have formed, and human potential has been unlocked.

In seeking to ‘Be Clear’ it’s important to recognise that without describing the behaviours and attitude you want to embed explicitly; it is difficult for people to understand how they might adopt them into their own leadership practice in future.

2. Hard wire

Much like any new behaviour or habit we try to develop, there will always be other pressures or priorities that get in the way. I’m sure in the past we’ve all cancelled or moved 1-2-1s with our team due to other issues that have arisen. To help avoid this it is important, where possible, to ‘hard wire’ in the new attitudes or behaviours you’re trying to embed.

Hard wiring can include everything from updating policies, creating company-wide routines, refreshing values, updating engagement surveys and/or updating reward schemes. Ultimately the purpose of hard wiring is to create more formal links between the attitudes and behaviours you’re trying to embed and the formal processes within the organisation. Whilst I would never propose that hard wiring alone will make the attitude and behaviours you are trying to embed stick, it does show that the organisation is serious about them.

3. Act mindfully

There’s no doubt that as we continue through the phases of the situation forced upon us by the COVID crisis, none of us will get it right all of the time. There will be tough decisions to make which have consequences. There will be conflicting priorities that we have to decide between. And, there will be human emotions, both ours and others, that we have to make sense of. In recognising that we are now needing to navigate levels of complexity and uncertainty that we’ve not experienced before we can again recognise that we won’t always know what the best path to take is.

To act mindfully is to remain focused on the outcome we are seeking to achieve in any moment and to be honest with ourselves as to whether we are delivering on this. And when we’re not, we can recognise it and be kind to ourselves as we bring ourselves back on course. To act mindfully is therefore to be clear and consistent about how we are seeking to show leadership, and to recognise when we’re living this and when we’re not. And this is something that we must not only do for ourselves, but also something we can (and should) help others with.

For all the conversations I’ve had with people in leadership roles over the last three months, in amongst all of the tragedy, complexity and difficulties that they’ve experienced there have been positives changes that have resulted. And these positives have more often than not been associated with the unlocking of human potential and a new found connection between human beings. The stories that I’ve heard have not only inspired me but have also shown me the ease at which people can change when the imperative to do so is strong enough. It’s up to all of us now to help make these positive changes stick.

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