Leading in Crisis - Focusing on the Truly "Essential"
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Leading in Crisis - Focusing on the Truly "Essential"

Cory Godwin, Director of Jail Operations, Walton County Sheriff's Office

Cory Godwin, Director of Jail Operations, Walton County Sheriff's Office

No doubt that the year 2020 will go down as the year that disruption was normalized. As we close the chapter in 2020 it is important to reflect upon our experience and the actions taken to sustain our operations during this global pandemic. We should ask ourselves and our teams, “What have we adapted to that we now need to adopt?” For corrections professionals, this included strategies like increased sanitation, isolation of the ill, availability of personal protection equipment, technology deployment to accomplish court hearings and attorney visits, temperature screenings of all new intakes, and much more. While these actions were driven by our response to COVID-19, they are practices and process improvements that should now be integrated into our future strategies.

"In the year ahead, those with people-centric workplace strategies that focus on talent, workforce flexibility, health, well-being, and the human experience will be the winners and leaders of organizations post-pandemic"

We also learn in the crisis that many of our rigid policies and even our great and innovative systems can fail us. It is during crises that the human dimensions are emphasized. Regardless of our actual mission, our new shared mission includes:

• The ill must receive care

• The families who endure loss must be comforted

• Those who well have to keep functioning; at higher levels, despite their fears.

Like you, I have been amazed at the courage and dedication of our corrections employees who have selflessly put the needs of others ahead of their fears to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. They are truly the definition of “essential workers”, and our most valuable asset. While it is certainly critical to focus on strategy and have effective systems, technology, and work processes in place, it is our people who make the difference. While leaders should always work to create a people-centric workplace, during crises it is essential that the human element be the priority.

It is a common misconception that leadership is all about telling followers what to do, and getting them to do it …no matter what. Humanity requires that leaders be considerate of others, are intentional about getting to know what a person is going through, and a willingness to adjust process and outcomes for the greater human need.

It’s one thing to demand that employees be at work on time, it’s quite another when you learn they are dealing with a sick child or aging parent that causes occasional tardiness. As followers begin to trust their leaders they become more transparent and willing to share their imperfections and vulnerabilities. Every leader desires to trust and loyalty. Trust is built on empathy and compassion that ultimately leads to the loyalty we all desire. All of the prerequisites for loyalty and loyalty itself are emotions! Therefore, we must be willing to involve ourselves in the emotions of our team members. Leading with humanity as a priority allows us to see past our own needs and wants, and enables us to focus on the people we are privileged to lead and serve.

Human-centric leadership during times of crisis requires different behaviors and different leadership decisions because the stakes are higher. Let’s consider (6) six crisis leadership behaviors that should be present:

1. Reassure: Leaders must role model “Self Certainty” – People hate uncertainty. In fact, many of our employees express this in statements like, “I’d rather get COVID and move on”, or “Can’t we just get back to normal?” All leadership begins with self-leadership. When responding to the uncertainty we must be grounded in our internal values- such as integrity, optimism, community, courage, purpose, and compassion. We must provide hope, but not hype. The decision should be made based on facts and principles and not solely on the optics. 

2. Foster Connection: Shared Sense of Purpose – With continued calls for social distancing we must find ways to foster socialization among our employees (even if remotely). Connection is created through a shared purpose and emphasis on values.  

Right now, the employees in your charge are feeling very confronted by a common threat. While they may not be coming together physically due to the nature of this threat, letting everyone know that “We’re all in this together, and we will get through it together” can build trust, grow loyalty and strengthen bonds in ways that can never be done in calmer times.

3. Act inclusively: Lead from the Heart, not just the head – Relationships are the currency of influence in any workplace. As leaders, we must continue to provide a sense of belonging and prioritize well-being. Leaders must be visible and intentional in their efforts to connect with employees. All employees what to know that you see them and that they matter. During crisis, leaders should be exceedingly human. Even though you don’t have definitive answers to all of their questions, don’t let that keep you from listening to them and empathizing with their fears. And, you should not be hesitant to share your own concerns with your people. They want to know that they can relate to you and that they are not alone in their concerns. 

You must also risk communication with your team. This is not a time to hold back. Send people updates and regular communication, even if there is not a lot of new information and the message is largely personal. No one will look back at this time and say, “my manager was so annoying with all the encouraging e-mails checking in on me.” When people are isolated, over-communication is more important than ever. This approach will also help you kill conspiracies and misinformation as people desperately seek answers. 

5. Show Decisiveness: Beware of waiting for clarity – You want always to have all the facts and the facts as reported could change day by day. In a crisis, you are called upon to make the best decision you can right now, with what you currently know. People need bold decisive leadership in crisis and courageous leadership. Courage is acting despite the fear, not absence of fear. 

6. Practice Agility: Build organizational resilience – Don’t miss the opportunities! Use the crisis as a catalyst for doing better business. 2020 has brought us many challenges but has also offered leaders numerous learning opportunities. It has demanded an evolution of how we work and what we learn. Consider what you should stop doing, and what you should start doing. Involve your people and collaborate with them to solve problems. Resist the urge to be dictatorial and make all the decisions. You’ll soon realize the best decisions and ideas come from the bottom up.

We are still early enough in the story of COVID-19 that leaders and organizations can shape the role they will play in the story told later. Leaders should make intentional choices to put self-interest aside in order to contribute to the greater good, where the human-centric approach is a priority. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the worst of times can bring out the best in people — individually and collectively — stretching us to think more broadly and advance more intelligently. 

In the year ahead, those with people-centric workplace strategies that focus on talent, workforce flexibility, health, well-being, and the human experience will be the winners and leaders of organizations post-pandemic. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing employee-centric workplace changes. The key is to be authentic and do what feels right for your people, culture, and organization, always using insights from your workforce to guide the needs of your organization. 

As leaders, by definition, we do our work through other people, and yet how easy it is to lose sight of that, to focus on the amount of work — the tasks, the output, the jobs to be completed. The irony is, the more you focus on the quality of those human connections, and the greater your quantity of results is likely to be. There will be other crises to lead through and by focusing on the human-centric workplace you can lead your people with truth, hope, and confidence!

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