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Leading people can be complicated during ordinary times, during COVID 19 it will stretch most and bring into sharp focus those who can really lead. What leaders do at a time of intense strain and stress will speak volumes about their values and the culture of an organisation more than any workshop or written document.

I want to focus from a psychotherapeutic perspective on the challenges and what happens when people are under pronounced stress combined with working remotely. This will explain "the why" of good leadership during times of strain and more ordinary times as well as the consequences if leaders fall short.

Tara Brach points out that it is not uncertainty in itself that people find difficult, it is what we fill this gap with; that faced with a blank canvas we often fill it with internally generated catastrophic images. COVID 19, will force people to do this even more with the heightened risk to health, welfare and personal finances. Add to this the uncertainty about the future post COVID 19 and we can go to internally toxic places. All workers are likely to have some emotional energy drained in this way, which impacts on performance, resilience and much more. It is hard to focus on work when internal scenarios make us feel that we are under serious threat. We get ready for battle and this makes it harder for us to be productive and creative.

As well as this negative increase in our frightening phantasy world, the gaps in physical contact also mean that people are likely to play out another internally generated version of reality that emanates from their past. When people are stressed or get triggered, they are more prone to regress to older relational patterns that are informed by relationships with primary carers. I will give an example to illustrate how historic narratives often inform employee/manager dynamics plus the impact of this when extended to working remotely.

Jay, for the purposes of this fictional example, had an authoritarian father who was controlling, exacting and gave little praise. This led Jay to work out that to get his father's approval he needed to be very controlling of his own behaviour; to not make mistakes, to always achieve, be the best and in some ways "tick box" his way into feeling he would have a place in his father's esteem. Jay's manager, Lana, displays some of the characteristics of his dad; she is highly critical of his work, enforces ways of working that stifle Jay's ability to make any decisions or feel like he has much control over his work. Jay and his manager ordinarily brush along okay and do get on, Jay likes her personally and they share some interests. When Jay feels unappreciated by Lana, he can sometimes see red and this brings up older feelings related to his dad that can make him feel his whole sense of self put under scrutiny. When this happens in the office, he is often pulled back into the reality of the "here and now" by seeing his manager, by them having a chat, or by other colleagues defusing the situation.

Fast forward to Jay in self isolation or lockdown with far less data to test his stories and it is likely he will spend longer feeling older emotions of how it was when his Dad criticised and rebuked him. Children often make sense of the world by putting themselves at the heart of things e.g. a parent that leaves or is overly harsh must be responding to something that is wrong with them. When children feel powerless, or unloved, or that there is something inherently wrong with them, they do not have the capacity to deal with this so have to develop strategies to get rid of these difficult feelings.

When as adults we get triggered we can often feel as if we are our childlike selves; we forget as adults that we have more resources to hand, that these feelings may not be as painful as anticipated, that the defences we employ to get rid of them often have worse consequences and that as adults we are not stuck at home with parents we have to live with (and if you are living with elderly parents it is a different dynamic I promise!)

Good leaders ordinarily are able to almost limit the connection their direct reports have with older patterns of relating and will bring out their more "adult self". It is an important "why" behind good leadership skills. When as leaders we do not communicate or manage well, we are more likely to trigger our direct reports and then have to deal with the ghosts of the nursery. When managing remotely with fewer water cooler moments and heightened levels of stress and anxiety, this is even more key.

People need more containment at the moment, someone to help them hold onto a sense of hope, their ability to cope, the things they can influence or take control of will help to put them in touch with their more "adult self". This will allow people to spend less time in their imagined catastrophic phantasies, and so not be flooded by older emotionally difficult or traumatic times. As well, they will be less likely to be catapulted back into older internal battles with their primary carers.

A friend described a leader in charge of front line NHS workers as being clear, calm, inspiring, honest, thoughtful, caring, able to communicate the challenges, difficulties and risks but also able to convey a sense of hope, focus on what can be done and what is needed. The ripple effect of good leadership during this time will be immense.

Leanne Hoffman

Psychotherapist, Coach and Trainer and Co Founder of Healthyminds@work

Leanne Hoffman is an author for accountingcpd. To see her courses, click here.

  1. Masimba M
    Posted 15-Sep-2020 at
    In third world countries, it is difficult for people to work from home. Data is very expensive and the employer can not afford to equip all and sundry to work from home, Nevertheless, I have found this article to be motivating.
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  2. Andrew S
    Posted 07-Sep-2020 at
    This is a very good article, I find Tara Brachs meditations very helpful in managing stress and stressful situations. I feel very much for folk who have had to manage very difficult situations at work due to Covid.
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  3. Leonard J
    Posted 07-Aug-2020 at
    Leading people dealing with stressful scenarios requires one to think as if they are the ones. Targets should not be about draining the little energy but strengthen the subordinates when facing uncertainty
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