Is it time for tough-talk about COVID-19?

Whilst politicians and leaders around the world scramble to respond to the immediate COVID-19 threat and the financial crisis to follow, we are seeing some emerging 'tough-talk' about whether to show up to work tomorrow.

Is it mentally tough to pass-off the warnings as unnecessary panic, ignore the warnings and soldier on?

Or is it more mentally tough to accept the brutal facts and be agile in making decisions and responding to adversity with flexibility?

Many employees are currently experiencing peer pressure from their colleagues, and in some cases their leaders, regarding showing-up for your team throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hard to know how to respond to such peer pressure.

After completing a Doctorate on building mental toughness, I often partner with organisations to create tough cultures and resilient leaders. A typical mental toughness assignment involves rising above fear or anxiety, continuing to show-up where others step back. It is considered tough to minimise stress and maximise positive thinking. Yet, speaking as someone who has built a career around helping people find mental toughness and succeed with it, this past week has left me thinking about a subtle culture of "tough-talk" that has been emerging. I think tough-talking leaders may be directing their toughness in less than optimal ways.

In the last 5 days alone, I have heard multiple scenarios where senior leaders have pushed back on their people who seek more flexible working arrangements through this spreading pandemic. "Don't be a worry-wart!" "To be successful you need to take some risks." "I'm showing-up (and so therefore so should you)". There is an unspoken pressure that showing-up despite the warnings indicates you are more reliable, dependable, emotionally controlled and tougher. I'd like to throw in an alternative perspective - is doing the same thing you've always done, despite clear and obviously different market conditions, really the tough position to take? Or could it be more mentally tough to tackle your assumptions about working remotely, stretch yourself to develop online skills in service of driving high performance, challenge yourself to think differently under pressure? Being fit for change is mentally tough. Whereas showing up for work, against all medical advice, risks lives and is probably more aligned to being closed minded. If you're going to talk tough, talk tough about change, adaptability, strategy and continued development.

Three areas I see we need to get tough on are:

1. Effective online meetings. Too many online meetings are run extremely poorly. We need to get tough on meeting agendas and meeting structures, keeping to topic, communicating the right information in the right way, landing on action plans that the people in the meeting are aligned on.

2. Effective communication between team members. Working remotely simply amplifies the communication deficiencies that exist when you are face to face in the office. We need to get tough on making sure all team members take full responsibility for the quality and frequency of their communication. Making communication work requires everyone's input.

3. Visibility of progress and momentum. Working remotely can feel isolating. It can be hard to see how you are part of something bigger, making progress as a team. Get tough on communicating a regular rhythm of results and signs of progress. Be mindful of the need to keep promoting team togetherness even though people are not in the same location.

As we lean into the challenge (and opportunities) ahead, it is important to acknowledge the immense pressure this can present to leaders. How do you lead in a time like this? When your forecast goes missing, as a leader the time is ripe for your mental toughness to come to the fore - be decisive, respond to change, lead the agility needed to be successful. Reach out for support as you need it. Happy to help if you would like to talk?

Dr Cory Middleton


Talent Development Academy