Mar 30 '20

How to Be an Inclusive Leader During a Pandemic

Quinetta Roberson
Quinetta Roberson
Ph.D., John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Management and Psychology
Michigan State University

As we attempt to maintain our focus on achieving business goals while adjusting to our new ways of working, there are three key ways to foster a sense of inclusion among your team members.

Quinetta Roberson
Quinetta Roberson
Ph.D., John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Management and Psychology
Michigan State University

In these uncertain and challenging times, one of the last things people are likely thinking about is how to be inclusive. It may be deemed unimportant in such a period of increased pressures and dwindling resources. It may also seem contradictory to what we have been told, which is to socially distance ourselves from others. We have been instructed by the world’s health experts to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others in order to prevent the spread of illness and reduce its devastating impact. As a result, our “new normal” has become conference calls, video chats, and other forms of distanced work interactions. But a sense of connection and community remains central to our well-being and engagement at work. It also strengthens an organization’s capacity for weathering and rebounding from a crisis such as the one we are facing. So, what we can do to meet those needs in the current environment. In other words, what can we do to be inclusive during a pandemic?

There are two different components to social distancing – structural and emotional distance. Structural distance refers to the physical space between people and is influenced by location and the directness of contact we have with others. In contrast, emotional distance refers to the social space between people and is influenced by the quality and frequency of our interactions.

Health guidance typically equates social distancing to efforts to avoid gatherings, stay at home as much as possible, and limit any physical contact, and recommendations have primarily focused on maintaining structural distance from others. Yet such reduced in-person contact has also influenced the amount of emotional distance between people as the nature and frequency of their interactions have changed.

As we are now required to conduct business outside of the physical space of offices and conference rooms and instead virtually interact with coworkers, it is more important than ever that we find ways to reduce the social space between us and maintain our emotional connectedness to one another in this time of crisis. In other words, social distancing may be a misnomer. 

What we need is increased structural distance with reinforced social and emotional connection.

As we attempt to maintain our focus on achieving business goals while adjusting to our new ways of working, there are three key ways to foster a sense of inclusion among your team members:

  • Create a cooperative culture. Limiting physical contact between team members will help to “flatten the curve” in terms of reducing the number of overall cases of illness and subsequent health effects, but it may also diminish members’ feelings of being part of a team. Therefore, it is critical for leaders to be social connectors and culture stewards. Maintaining regular virtual interactions between members can help sustain the social contact between team members. While the needs of every team are different, one starting place might be weekly team meetings or bi-weekly one-on-ones between supervisors and staff. By the same token, allocating time in virtual meetings for members to check-in with each other regarding their health and well-being, express feelings regarding the current state of affairs, and sharing coping strategies may be effective for reducing any emergent social space in the team. Team social activities, such as a virtual supper club or mindfulness workshop, can also encourage employees to connect.
  • Reduce status differences in the team. Insider-outsider dynamics can often result in people feeling alienated at work, which can also be the case in virtual environments. In fact, it may be exacerbated in remote work situations, as people have varying levels of comfort with technology, tensions between work and life responsibilities, and divergent work styles. As such, leaders must be sure to invite and appreciate all members’ perspectives and talents. For example, alternating meeting platforms or times may help incorporate the diversity of work styles and outside-of-work responsibilities of team members. Similarly, holding both team and one-on-one meetings with employees may ensure that everyone has access to the leader and has their voices heard.
  • Encourage members’ meaningful contributions. In a time when things are so uncertain and changing so quickly, leaders may find themselves taking a more authoritative approach to decision-making. Yet as we forge ahead in this business environment, leaders would be well-served by actively consulting team members, even when their opinions are unpopular or deviate from the prevailing team perspective. Following up with members after project or meetings for their thoughts on what worked and did not work can both enhance member engagement and boost team effectiveness. In addition, reporting back to the team how their feedback was incorporated into decisions helps to signal their value to the team.

The key to inclusion is not simply to tell employees that they are part of the team, but to actively create the experience of being part of the team. It is about genuinely connecting with, and relating to, others and strengthening those social connections. This may seem difficult in a time of quarantining, self-isolation, and social distancing, but it is easier than you think. 

We are all in this crisis together, which is the key to fostering inclusion. While we do not know how long this crisis will last, we can form bonds and a sense of togetherness that are enduring and build bridges to span the physical distance between us.

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