By Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard
Wouldn’t it be nice if a new year truly ushered in a fresh start? The optimism we may have ordinarily had in past years as we turned the calendar to January and considered all of the new possibilities that lay ahead of us is a little harder to muster up this time. The Covid-19 pandemic, now in year three, and other stressors have taken a toll. Many people are exhausted and struggling. We’re seeing it in higher levels of frustration and uncivil behavior being directed at others as the Omicron variant sweeps across the globe and further disrupts plans. And while people may be able to put on a happy face at work, underneath the surface their emotional health is probably not great, according to recent research.
If you are a leader, by the time you read this, you will have already communicated the priorities for 2022 to the people you are responsible for leading. In the current environment, you’ll need to do more than present the goals and expect execution. To encourage people that together they can get through this coming year, you will need to communicate realistic optimism and model determination and perseverance. One of the most important things you can do is to give people hope.
The Role of Hope
Are hope and optimism the same thing? Often we use these words interchangeably when talking about our desire that something will be better in the future. Arthur C. Brooks differentiated the terms this way in an article in The Atlantic: “Optimism is the belief that things will turn out all right; hope makes no such assumption but is a conviction that one can act to make things better in some way.” As to the impact of hope, Brooks noted: “In a report in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2013, researchers defining hope as ‘having the will and finding the way’ found that high-hope employees are 28 percent more likely to be successful at work and 44 percent more likely to enjoy good health and well-being.”
In the spring of 2020, when leaders at all levels and in all sectors were communicating about the emerging pandemic and those messages varied widely in content and delivery, Tom Friedman interviewed Dov Seidman for an article on the critical role of leadership. Seidman, founder and chairman of an ethics and compliance company and an organization promoting values-based leadership, honed in on what the best leaders have in common: trust, hope and humility. “Great leaders trust people with the truth. And they make hard decisions guided by values and principles, not just politics, popularity or short-term profits,” Seidman explained. “… The true antidote to fear is hope, not optimism. Hope comes from seeing your leader lead in a way that brings out the best in people by inspiring collaboration, common purpose and future possibilities. It takes hope to overcome great fear and meet great challenges. People do, of course, appreciate good news and optimism from their leaders, but only if it’s grounded in reality, facts and data.”
Communicating in Times of Uncertainty
As you lead during a time of crisis, great change or prolonged uncertainty, consider whether your words and actions are encouraging collaboration and common purpose — the sense of connection that inspires hope as Seidman explains. Are you voicing optimism and providing hope as you show the way forward?
One of the profiles in the second edition of Connection Culture features several leaders who employed the Connection Culture elements of Vision, Value and Voice in their communications in the early months of the pandemic. Here are tips from that profile for you to consider as you lead or influence others:
- Engage, don’t retreat or go silent. With a lack of timely and relevant information, some people will assume the worst or make wrong assumptions.
- Believe that people can handle the truth. Share what you are able to and let people know you will share updates as more information becomes known.
- Keep vision in front of people. On a regular basis, remind them that “this is who we are and this is why we are taking this action.” Relate each action to the big picture. Make it clear what their role is and why it’s valuable.
- Be open about your own feelings (at an appropriate level, of course). Doing so and being vulnerable actually draws people in and helps them feel like you’re all in this together.
- Recognize people for the good they are doing, their perseverance and their positive attitude.
- Share the spotlight with your collaborators and be sure they are getting the credit they are due.
- Have your communications be a dialogue whenever possible. Ask people how they are doing and really listen to what they say.
- Balance the hard news with hope. Share any silver linings of the challenge that you and others are spotting as well as what you believe it will be like on the other side.
Hope to Move Forward
Do you have hope? Can you identify any silver linings as you reflect on what you’ve observed or experienced during the past two years? Are you optimistic about the future?
For us, we believe connection has become more of a felt need in our society, especially after the lockdowns and the rapid move to remote work that happened in 2020. We believe that despite, or perhaps because of, the very real pain and loss they’ve endured, people have developed a greater appreciation for the people in their lives and for simple pleasures. We think this change is going to put all of us in a better place to truly enjoy life in the years ahead.
In terms of the pandemic, there is a realistic basis to be optimistic. Recent reports from South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first detected in late November, show the situation with that variant is quickly improving. Although more transmissible, Omicron is proving to be less dangerous and fewer people have had to go to the hospital because of it. That is very good news, especially as we see the number of positive cases of Covid-19 skyrocketing in the U.S. in the first weeks of 2022.
We now have proven vaccines and therapies that were not available a year ago. They’ve been shown to be effective in that they protect people from severe illness that leads to hospitalization and even death. Many healthcare professionals believe Covid will eventually be like the flu — it will not go away but it will be manageable, thanks to vaccination and therapeutics.
Today, people need to know that you, their leader, understand their challenges. Reach out to individuals and ask how they’re feeling. Listen closely. Thank them for the work they are doing under these changing circumstances. Ask what you can do to help them. Use these interactions as opportunities to convey hope and optimism for brighter days. It will make what could be a rocky path more manageable to navigate and traverse together.
About the Authors
Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.
Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.