The pandemic is no excuse for leaders to be oblivious to wellbeing

Managers should not be blind to employees’ suffering, even during a global crisis, say Phil Renshaw and Jenny Robinson

Check any social media feed in recent months and it will not take long before you fall upon discussions around wellbeing, burnout and stress. Solutions are being offered. Ideas shared. The presumption is often that this is a direct and sole result of the pandemic. Our research – Leaders’ Voices – offers a different explanation to the underlying picture and what we might need to consider.

Leaders’ Voices is a research project to get underneath the skin of being a leader. By being we mean what can we really learn if we stop treating leaders as special people and instead understand that they are mortal and suffer from all the same inclinations as every human being. In conversations and reflective writings, we encourage leaders to coach their younger self as a way to reveal something deeper in their understanding of leadership and their basic humanity. We have sought to combine an understanding of employees’ and their leaders’ lived experience.

We have found that people continue to feel that they are treated as units of production. Despite wise and kind words by senior leaders, the day-to-day reality of the majority may be very different to the rhetoric. We have heard that in some places the unrelenting nature of work, combined with Covid, social isolation and an ongoing sense of fear, has piled pressure on people to the extent that they are broken. Alarmingly, this includes organisations where the rhetoric is genuinely compassionate, working practices are flexible and people are engaged to undertake cerebral and interesting work. 

What is happening? We have senior people who are humble, self-aware, well-meaning. As one interviewee said: “… we are all human and most people have great intentions and just want to come to work to do a great job and achieve something.” 

Yet despite this appreciation for people’s need for agency and self-worth, we found teams who are suffering – deeply. What’s more, the leaders we talked to had many admirable qualities, and yet were largely unaware of the difficulties being experienced by their colleagues or saw the issues as a ‘pandemic thing’.

The explanation we have identified is the continuing atomisation of leadership as an individual endeavour. This is natural, of course, because our organisational systems set goals and rewards for individuals. Although there may be an element of team reward, this is usually secondary to the individuals being held accountable for their performance and their achievement. 

As one of our participants noted: “It has taken me most of my career to develop an understanding of leadership beyond the dominant (extremely dominant in my line of work!) leadership paradigm of a leader as an heroic, individual, decision-making entity.”

The organisational reality, however, must be that no leader leads alone. Leaders are not individual contributors, they cannot be. Even if previously these individuals developed deep technical skills where their contribution was singular, promotion and seniority require that they become skilful in creating more than the sum of the parts. If this claim sounds too grand to be believable, try it for yourself for a while. What can you possibly achieve in your organisation without linking to, aligning with, or collaborating across other people or teams? And doing so effectively, with care, compassion and interest.

So, our research shows that leaders are implicitly (and often explicitly) encouraged to be heroic and solo, whereas reality requires them to be humble and collaborative.

It is the collective and interrelated nature of work that is being overlooked. Not only are leaders thinking and acting alone, but individuals are also thinking and acting as solo contributors: they feel lonely. And this encourages leaders to disregard, overlook or simply be blind to their own suffering and that of others around them. 

The pandemic has magnified this, but the underlying historic nature of our business leadership assumptions, training and language is to blame. While steps such as ‘take time to ask people how they are, always try to connect on a personal level before launching into the professional side’ will have a positive effect, these remain atomised and individualised actions. 

Practically, what is the solution? Step back and acknowledge that leadership is a collective endeavour, happening at all levels across and between organisational departments. Take actions to change the heroic leader dynamic – you may lose short-term gain (a personal bonus) but will achieve long-term gain (more bonuses, and personal value). 

Operate as leaders in a joined up and concerted manner, this is the essence of leadership. Act collaboratively, encourage collaboration, share the highs (and therefore the lows), share the opportunities, allow others to share. Such actions will reduce stress and burnout while building and sharing collective awareness of what is happening around you, so that you can develop a wider repertoire of responses. 

Another leader said to us: “Be open to a conversation with your followers about what they are looking for from you as their leader – it might not come naturally, but just ask the question. When you put ‘us’ in that sentence, notice how much more powerful that could be: what are you looking for from us?”

Dr Phil Renshaw and Dr Jenny Robinson are visiting fellows at Cranfield School of Management. They are co-authors of Coaching on the Go