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Thought Leadership

Into the Unknown: Learning and Development in Times of Crisis

UNC professor Heidi Schultz giving a presentation to businesspeople seated at a conference table.

Any working parent of small children has probably had the Frozen 2 song “Into the Unknown” stuck in their head at some point. In these bizarre times, that is where many learning and development (L&D) leaders feel like they’ve gone.

This unknown world has come with some truly daunting challenges for leadership development. In conversations with our peers in corporate L&D, some recurring themes have emerged. Here we address six common challenges:

  1. Balancing crisis management with long-term planning
  2. Creating an inclusive, respectful, and productive virtual work environment
  3. Giving and receiving coaching and feedback in an all-virtual world
  4. Communicating between the C-suite and frontline workers
  5. Adapting to new and unfamiliar roles thrust upon us by COVID
  6. Preparing for re-entry to the “new normal” workplace

One foot in the present, one in the future

L&D leaders have found it increasingly difficult to simultaneously balance crisis management and long-term talent development planning with the added challenge of changing priorities from their C-suite and front-line managers. One remarked that she was “trying to build a ship with a storm raging around me.” L&D leaders must make sense of a daily flood of information to determine what their business and their people need now and in the future.

Based on the research of UNC Professor Chris Bingham, we have learned one of the most effective ways to address complex challenges is to simplify decision-making amid complexity and connect short-term decisions with long-term strategies. Rather than adopting more processes and policies to manage complexity, often a result of a knee-jerk reaction, Bingham suggests that organizations should create Simple Rules, offering structure to their people without being restrictive. This is especially crucial when time is short and information is limited.

Learn how to create shortcuts and economize your time in Improve Agility Through Simple Rules.

Blunting sharp virtual elbows

Working in a virtual environment comes with a unique set of challenges. One L&D leader observed that her colleagues were not as diplomatic in their virtual interactions as they normally were in person. While this has been a problem for decades in online forums, the trend might be bleeding over to the workplace.

What’s more, there is the added challenge in a virtual environment of ensuring that introverts are heard yet also challenged to speak out, while extroverts moderate their tendency to dominate the conversation, yet are supported in their craving for constant communication.

UNC Professor Arv Malhotra, who has been studying how to lead and manage remote teams for two decades, provides actionable advice on how to create an inclusive environment which solicits and honors a breadth of ideas and voices.

One suggestion: Walk the virtual hallway. “Use frequent one-on-one check-ins to see how each team member is doing personally. These check-ins should include mentorship conversations: What might be keeping team members from doing what they need to be doing? How can the virtual work process be improved? Don’t ever make decisions in these one-on-one sessions that might not get relayed to the team. All decision-making should be transparent to all members of the team.”

Get tips for improving virtual work in Making Virtual Work (Teams) Better.

Listen up, through your screen

Giving and receiving coaching and feedback is even harder virtually. One L&D leader shared that her company’s employees are more open to sharing with her than they are with their HR department or even their own manager. “People need that consultation now more than ever,” she said. “They have a fear about sharing their vulnerabilities during this crisis.”

UNC Professor Alison Fragale advises leaders to make an extra effort to offer positive feedback, not just negative. “This is always true, but even more so now, as individuals are experiencing isolation, anxiety and self-judgment,” she says.

Fragale points to research that shows NBA teams whose players express appreciation through physical touch – like chest bumps – perform better. “While a chest bump might not be office-appropriate (and hard to mimic virtually), the broader lesson from this research is that praise matters,” Fragale says. “Winners praise and praisers win. So start looking for opportunities to offer more praise to those around you.”

Fragale reminds us that whether feedback is delivered virtually or in-person, good feedback is timely feedback. Feedback must be offered in the moment to be effective, which remote work makes challenging since natural opportunities for immediate feedback are harder to come by than at the office. “It will be harder to do it virtually, but this is what we need to replicate.” For more on the value of praise, read here.

What we have here is a failure to communicate

During the pandemic, L&D leaders consistently cited communication as one of their biggest challenges. Often they must turn inconsistent crisis communications from their C-suite into clear and compelling messages for their front-line leaders. Storytelling can be an effective way to cut through information overload, connecting you on a more personal level with your stakeholders. People remember a compelling story and share it with others. UNC helps our clients build this skill as a tool to leverage in times of crisis.

“There’s a need to motivate people – not just with their heads but also with their hearts,” says UNC Professor Heidi Schultz. “The stories leaders tell during COVID-19 can start to create the organizational culture they want to nurture for their organizations.” Schultz provides three storytelling examples with unique impacts:

  • A nurse who works the front lines to treat children with COVID-19 contributes to a culture of compassion
  • A grocery stocker who works overtime contributes to a culture of pride
  • An operational staff person who is quarantined at the plant for three weeks builds a culture of dedication

To be sure, storytelling in a time of crisis reveals resilience, character and hope – messages that are easily within the grasp of the leader who is also the storyteller.

Learn how to craft communications that stick in 3 Effective Habits to Develop Your Leadership Storytelling Skills.

Jack of all trades, master of all

Another common challenge voiced by L&D leaders is how to support their staff in learning new skills and adapting to different ways of working. One leader relayed a story about a colleague who had to quickly adapt to new technology and deliver their tried and true, normally face-to-face presentation with the expectation that it be just as effective virtually as in person. “We are being forced to use unfamiliar technologies and adopt new ways of working, while still staying aligned with corporate culture,” she said.

An L&D director in the accounting industry is often asked to help co-workers take on new roles, outside of their regular responsibilities, thrust upon them by unexpected needs during this crisis. “People are looking to me and my team for leadership,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out how to create a vision and bring people into the solution: learning new skills, doing their jobs differently and managing change.”

UNC Professor Brad Staats, author of Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive, offers practical advice. Many professions engage in continuing education, which creates a mindset of constant learning and acquiring new skills and behaviors, which helps them stay in front of an ever-changing world.

“What we know right now is not going to get us where we need to go,” Staats says. “When we’re living in a world where the only constant is change, you have to prepare yourself through constant learning. If we fail to learn, we risk becoming irrelevant.”

Learn why continuous learning is an essential skill in 7 Keys to Continuous Learning.

A bumpy re-entry?

And then there is what’s next. What happens when we return to the office? Will we be able to return? Will all of our colleagues want to? Will all of us actually need to?

Several L&D leaders tell us they are trying to anticipate how to deal with staff who want to keep working remotely. One mentioned a “fear factor” in going back to work as a major concern of her staff.

This will push us all to be resilient, patient and agile. The skills we learned and developed over the past few months will continue to support us through the coming months. We will face more uncertainty, disruption and challenges.

Leading successfully in the new normal requires the knowledge, skills and attitudes of what we at UNC call the ‘Leaders of the Future’. These leaders can adapt, anticipate and drive change and innovation. They build trust, think strategically and lead effectively in any environment. The urgency to develop these leaders has only increased.