Define Potential Blog

Leadership and Productivity:

What your people need from you as a leader.

11 September 2020

Image by Teo Georgiev for Fine Acts, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

Fires. Coronavirus. Riots. Working from home whilst home schooling kids. A sudden spike in Covid, the return of restrictions, followed by the now familiar fear for family and friends. And with those realities there are the less obvious things that are hindering our productivity such as the aspects of life we consider first world problems but keep us motivated throughout the year. These are the events that have been motivating you such as the upcoming vacation back to your home country that has been cancelled, or your best friend’s wedding that you can no longer attend. Understandably… tensions are high.

When considering the product of the pandemic on my team, it is not clear how it has affected them. The affects are deeper, more insidious and less obvious. The question I consider is, while it is easy to link the disengaged behaviours to the pandemic, why then can’t we rationalise a way out of our feelings and into productivity? We are smart people, I have a capable team… why then are my people so hard to motivate right now? How can I help them move forward?

What your people need right now is empathy.

Ergo, this blog outlines a different way to improve productivity. A gentler approach for the times and based on the saying, ‘if you can’t beat them then join them’. You can’t fight Coronavirus, the mental/emotional exhaustion of your team, etc. So rather than ignore what isn’t working and fight harder, relax and realise that the only way around this situation is through.

Encourage time off

Research show “It takes effort to stay engaged with a future outcome (such as work deliverables) when the current situation is unfavourable; this is where hope comes in.” (Bruininks) The idea of ‘fun’ and ‘joy’ is short on hand these days. When you notice the signs of employee disengagement i.e. starting their work day later and later, falling KPI’s, increased errors, irritability etc., encourage your APS staff to take the leave they have been racking up since working from home. Ask them to plan a vacation they are genuinely looking forward to and to do it often. Sometimes, we need the hope of a break and enjoyable moments as leverage to motivate us through tedious work and lifestyle obligations. Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “Leaders need to be dealers of hope.” Now more than ever, “hope and compassion need to become part of your leadership style” (Bruininks).

Develop a workplace plan

With the effort expelled after the work day in combination with the pandemic and world events, I find that come Saturday I will sleep all day and binge-watch episodes of Friends rather than do the normal weekend surf trip at the coast with my buddies. All these elements mingling together result into a low enthusiasm for work and understandably burnout is becoming prevalent. There no longer appears to be the fighting spirit for productivity and smashing KPI’s. Rather these expectations are currently exhausting rather than invigorating.

Your workers are tired.

And while that is no excuse to do a poor job, they cannot give their best right now.

“Burnout is defined as a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” Currently, while work will not be the sole cause of fatigue, to support your team – set up a workplace plan.

Canada Life, an organisation for Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, suggests you can create this plan by considering the following:

  • Having a team meeting twice a week to stay on top of areas of overwhelm, spread out work evenly and offer support where necessary,
  • Ask your employees individually how to best recognise their success and victories so you can praise them in a manner that they can hear it and appreciate it,
  • Take regular assigned breaks and encouraging your team members to take a walk away from their workspace,
  • Resist working unnecessary overtime, and
  • Help organise and prioritise work into manageable and clear expectations. These changes can help rebuild energy over time and aid in recovery.

Be generous in your interpretations

In a recent APS leadership and development program, a gentleman explained his biggest anxiety in working remotely is that no one has visibility of each other. Not only can he not see what his direct reports are doing, he was anxious that his line manager could not see the amount of effort he was putting into his job. Therefore, he ended up working even longer hours to prove he was using his time at home wisely.

Short exercise: Imagine you email your co-worker expecting a quick response but a day later you have yet to hear from them. Do you take their lack of response personally? Assume they are being lazy or goofing off in their back yard with their dog? I am guilty of this line of thought… When in reality that same colleague is swamped with emails, phone calls, and messages from other stakeholders, managers and team members. Gone are the days you can simply look over at their desk and witness their workload. An excerpt from Farnam Street article states,

“We take our colleague’s lack of response personally and assume they are lazy or disrespectful, but it is important for us to recognise that we are assuming.  We often instinctively chose to assume the worst of people,  because it slips easily into mind. But what if instead we chose to assume the best?”

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown writes about a dialogue practice between herself and Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting, a professor at University of Houston, where Brown learned to assume the best others. 

“Whenever someone would bring up a conflict with a colleague, she would ask, ‘What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?” – Brené Brown

“Accept that your co-workers’ home lives are now relevant to you.” – Gallo

You never gave much thought before to the fact that your colleague was a single parent with two kids and no childcare. The reality is their home environment now affects your business and work flow. Harvard Business Review writer, Amy Gallo suggests, “Instead of getting annoyed that your co-worker keeps getting interrupted by their child, put down the judgement and think about how you might adjust the patterns of how you work together. How can you be more flexible so everyone can continue to get their work done?”

Besides essential meetings and deadlines – is there anything wrong with work being done between the hours of 5pm-1am? When irritated or concerned about your colleagues work space, focus instead on what your co-workers are achieving rather than how they are achieving it.

Be human, be humble

Research states that “More than half of government and public service entities were focusing on addressing employees’ psychological stress in 2020”  (Deloitte). Wellbeing is a big deal right now. And rather than being a fluffy word or a nice thought, the wellbeing of your team will directly affect your job as a manager right now.

As such, to balance wellbeing and deliverables – be clear about your expectations, define the non-negotiables and hold everyone to those standards. Then ask them how you can best support them during this time.

I once had a rare boss. This particular manager set high expectations as a team, we worked proudly and tirelessly to meet KPI’s because she inspired so much respect through her transparency, laughter and honesty that not one member of our crew didn’t go above and beyond for her – Naturally, when I got accepted into my first role as manager, I emailed her asking for advice, hoping one day I could be that manager I so admired. She responded, “Be human, be humble and realise that as a manager – you are tasked with the ultimate support role”.

Exercise: Think back and review what led you to become a manager.
When I reflect on my achievements or opportunities professionally, or even who I have become today – it is all a directly result of the people who have believed in me. Be it my university professor who believed in my abilities more than I did, the amazing colleague who worked with me on the weekend to finish a project they were not a part of, the mentors who put in effort and offered connections. My wins in life are because of the people in my life. Similarly, your results as a manager are because of your team, not just you. To meet KPI’s, smash deadlines and achieve will be a direct result of how you can best support and inspire your team to continue giving their best work. This is about them – not you. Do what you need to do to support your team for business results. Right now, maybe for the first time ever, that means caring about more about your team’s humanity first and the job second.

While I am not suggesting to rain love and leniency down on your colleagues nor excuse people for not delivering on deadlines. Instead, to inspire and motivate your employees – have some empathy.

Taylor Moellerich, Business Development Coordinator, Define Potential

Taylor graduated from Southern Oregon University with a degree in Outdoor Adventure Leadership and Psychology. Taylor has worked as a guide, outdoor educator and manager internationally since 2011. After working within the leadership space for 9 years, Taylor now focuses her passion for leadership and development into offering opportunities for leadership and development to the Public Sector.


Bruininks, Patricia, (2012). The Unique Psychology of Hope.

Lindsay Kolowich, (2016). When I’m Too Exhausted to Care About Work, Here’s What I Do

Canada Life – Burnout Response

Farnam Street. The Most Respectful Interpretation.

Amy Gallo (2020), What Your Coworkers Need Right Now Is Compassion. Harvard Business Review.

Deloitte, (2020). COVID-19: Practical workforce strategies that put your people first, 2020.

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