There’s no question that 2020 has been a difficult year. In addition to the chronic stress of the pandemic and environmental disasters, we’ve seen civil unrest and political strife. Many of us feel divided and scattered, and those feelings are bleeding into the workplace.

As leaders, we’re no strangers to distressing situations. One of the main leadership skills is the ability to promote unity and action even when times are tough. How can we overcome problems with our team and cultivate a positive company culture — even as the world seems to fall apart? Here are the techniques that I’ve used in my years as a CEO. Make these part of your leadership toolkit, and your team will be even stronger as we move into 2021.

Develop the Unity Mindset

During times of crisis, people are agitated. It’s much harder to compartmentalize their experiences, and even little problems can seem like the end of the world. As a leader, you need to present yourself as a guide more than a boss — someone who inspires and supports your team. Empathy goes much farther farther than authority.

Take a good, hard look at your leadership style. When you adopt a unity mindset, you start to see the divisions and anxieties that hurt productivity and retention. Ask yourself these questions:

Are you giving people a safe environment to ask questions and improve themselves? Or are you ignoring problems and only focusing on successes?

Are you allowing your team to leverage their skills in the best way? Or are you micromanaging them?

Are you pitting team members against each other through unhealthy incentive programs that promote individualism? Or are you incentivizing collaboration in your reward systems?

One thing I’ve noticed in my vast experience as a CEO is that people naturally want to come together. They want to communicate, share, and support each other. But in environments where they feel stressed or hopeless, they primarily look out for themselves. That attitude is even worse when a pandemic puts us all in a remotely positioned survival mode.

So, how can you promote unity?

Open the Lines of Communication

In my experience, division and miscommunication go hand-in-hand. Conversely, unity happens with communication, and vice versa. Teams who don’t feel a sense of unity are those who don’t communicate with each other. They focus on their points of difference rather than their shared goals and beliefs.

Good leaders do more than just communicate. They communicate both clearly and frequently, and they make it okay for their team to do so as well. I’ve seen countless managers send out memos that may as well be in Greek! I’ve also seen managers talk as though they’re the only ones with a stake in the game. If you want your team to care, you need to acknowledge their challenges, interests and goals.

True, it’s harder to keep in touch when many of us are working remotely. Even if we’re back in the office, that time apart hurts our feeling of unity. The key is to talk. Open the door to questions, feedback, praise, and complaints — all of it. Your team is still stressed by the unpredictability of 2020. Don’t let the workplace become yet another source of confusion. As the leader, set the tone; lead by example, be empathetic, genuinely listen to your staff, and take note.

Lead with Humanity

How many leaders know all the names of each person in their organizational chart? When you’re at the top, it’s far too easy to delegate to the chain of command — and lose touch with your team. Take it from me: you will be a much more effective leader when you engage with your team. Our shared humanity is one of the greatest assets we have. Don’t let it go unnoticed.

Here are some of the strategies I recommend for conscientious leadership:

Create a safe space. The phrase “safe space” has become politicized, but it’s actually an old concept with a simple mission: give people an opportunity to address their needs without retribution. As a leader, one of the best things you can do is to offer an open-door policy with no repercussions. If people feel they can approach you, you can better identify and solve problems before they hurt your team. 

Make yourself part of the team. I often see managers draw a thick line between themselves and their  employees. This is a mistake. These days, people are already seeing divisions everywhere: between political parties, among different religions, even concerning masks, and social distancing. To promote unity, you need to break down that wall between executives and non-executives. Invite them to sit at the table, and participate in events and chats with them. The more present and inclusive you are, the more others will open doors to unity.

Focus on impact as a source of wealth. At the end of the day, your organization doesn’t make its money from computers and data without human interpretation and insight. Your and your team’s impact are your most important currency. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we must create meaning and value even when the world is chaotic. 

Slow things down. Studies show that mental health resources and stress reduction make team members more productive. And let’s face it: everyone impacted by the pandemic or other 2020 chaos could use some R&R. I’ve always been a fan of the deep breath. Use it during stressful moments. Encourage your team to use it as well. Make good mental health a normal part of workplace culture rather than stigmatizing it.  Take YOUR vacation and encourage your team to do the same.  

Encourage wellness breaks everyday; take walks, stretch, meditate, drink tea, lead by example and encourage these practices within the team as well. 

Leading Towards Unity

Leadership is more than making tough decisions and developing strategies. At the end of the day, you’re a person like anyone else — except you’re responsible for creating a positive, healthy environment. Communication is at the core of everything you need for a good company culture. That means breaking down walls, opening doors, and inviting people to share. All of this creates an atmosphere of trust and unity, rather than paranoia and division.

2020 was the year of stress and chaos. Turn the tide for your organization by  promoting calm, clarity, hope and connection in 2021.

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