Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane and supported during the current crisis.

With restrictions lifting and staff across a range of sectors returning to work, leaders and employees alike will be facing many new challenges. Here we consider how those in leadership roles can both maintain their own resilience and wellbeing and focus on supporting staff through this process of adaptation and change, as we enter the next stage in the rollercoaster ride of the Coronavirus crisis.

What is resilient leadership?

People in leadership roles face a unique set of workplace challenges, including multiple demands and high levels of accountability and responsibility. With the additional challenges of managing staff remotely and the need to implement swift changes to systems and processes, leaders have perhaps never been put to the test more than they have through this current crisis.

Research shows that resilient leaders are skilled communicators, drawing on emotional and social intelligence to recognise and manage their own and others’ emotional reactions to stress, listening to and supporting staff through difficult times and creating a culture of trust, safety and cohesion.

When faced with seemingly insurmountable pressures and demands, resilient leaders are able to understand the nature of the challenge they face. They have strong relationship networks, and draw on these to access support, to gain an accurate view of any potential threats to their team at an early stage and to explore ways of managing these threats. They are proactive in managing the impact of these threats on staff resilience and wellbeing.

How can resilient leadership help us through the current crisis?

For employees who have been furloughed, or have been working from home, the potential return to the work environment is likely to be fraught with feelings of anxiety and threat. The anticipation of sharing workspaces, canteens and toilets or facing customers may be a great source of worry. There may be feelings of anger at having to go back or an urge to avoid doing so. The process of further change and adaptation that this new phase brings may give rise to uncertainty and stress. How our organisation helps us to manage this anxiety will be key to the success of our transition back to work.

When we feel under threat, we need to know that the person at the helm is in control. We need to have trust and confidence that they are calm, able to think clearly and make decisions. If we are to share their vision and follow their lead we need to have some insight into how they have come to decisions.

Leaders who understand what it takes to be resilient themselves, are authentic and follow the rules that they set out for other people, and who create cohesive teams that support one another through difficulty will be better placed to manage a smooth transition back into the workplace.

As we return to work our willingness and ability to act collectively in adhering to safety measures both in work and outside work will be key to protecting us all. Stephen Reicher, behavioural scientist and advisor to the government on designing the lockdown guidelines, makes some important points about people’s compliance with advice aimed at keeping us all safe. He points out that we are more likely to comply with authority when we feel ‘we’re all in it together’. In this sense, managers and leaders who create a sense of cohesion are more likely to get staff on board with new ways of working.

Reicher also notes that when we can see our actions are central to the greater good of our communities, that it is not about ‘I’ but about ‘we’, we are more likely to comply with the rules. This will be increasingly important as lockdown eases and workplaces need to implement new systems and procedures for getting the job done.

Personal resilience

Research tells us that resilient people experience stress reactions just like the rest of us. But they are able to bounce back more quickly by putting in place strategies to manage their emotions, finding ways of adapting to the challenges they face and drawing on their personal strengths in the process.

Resilient leaders do this too. They are self-aware, understand triggers and early warning signs of stress and put strategies in place to manage their emotions, calm their bodily reactions and find balanced ways of thinking and behaving.

Resilient leaders are also aware of their own unhelpful coping, and are able to manage any defensive or self-protective reactions that might have a negative impact on the people they lead. These might include perfectionism, overfocus on the negative, over-control or criticism.

By connecting with others, resilient leaders are able to experience a buffer against stress. Supportive relationships help us analyse problems and find solutions. They also help to calm the sympathetic nervous system arousal associated with stress, anxiety and anger, and to build positive emotions through sharing and savouring positive experiences and celebrating successes.

Being authentic

Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, highlighted the important role played by co-operation and trust in flourishing economies throughout history. Indeed, relationships are essential for survival. And when they are based on trust and authenticity, they have the power to over-ride our threat responses.

When leaders are authentic, when they are genuine about what they believe or value, when they do what they say they will do and act in line with what they believe and value, the potential to build a culture of trust and safety is created.

This transparency and willingness to act in accordance with values and goals encourages the staff they manage to share their vision, to feel that ‘we’re all in it together’ and to follow their lead.

Creating a supportive culture

Where trust and safety are lacking, staff feel unsafe, behave cautiously, keep ideas to themselves and become closed off and unable to respond collectively or cohesively to threats. But by creating a culture of safety and support, leaders promote reflexivity, where staff are able to talk openly about the challenges they are facing, learn from each other and work together to overcome adversity.

In his TED talk, ‘Why good leaders make you feel safe’, Simon Sinek spells out the importance of creating a culture of support and safety, of putting people in the organisation first so they feel secure and have a sense of belonging. He demonstrates how, rather like parents, resilient leaders provide opportunities, education and guidance, encouraging staff to build self-confidence and be the best they can be.

To successfully make the transition back into the workplace, staff need to feel supported and cared about, their worries and concerns listened and responded to. Leaders who are authentic and show empathy, who are responsive to the people they lead by asking questions, being curious and listening, create stronger more resilient teams. As we move through the rollercoaster of the current crisis, continuing to face uncertainty, anxiety and risk to our health and wellbeing, these leadership skills are more important than ever.

If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of the other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.