The frontline leader role is always stressful. Consider this: they get stress from both sides. Their senior leaders are always on them, “You need to train your people, make them more effective, hold them accountable, be a good coach,” and so on. And, all the people reporting to them are always complaining up. They have to be a mediator and chief explainer of everything that happens to team members. And, a lot of times, they don’t get the training to handle it all. Now, add in a remote work environment, changing return to work plans and other challenges caused by Covid-19, and it’s magnified even more.
In addition to being that great trainer, coach, performance manager, mediator, accountability partner, etc., now frontline leaders have to be a medical expert and prognosticator: “What’s going to happen? What’s the future look like? What’s the company saying?” These frontline leaders have become the givers of hope that things will get better.
As a result, they have a lot more on their plate these days. And so, senior leaders, because they feel like they’re being effective, are constantly bombarding the frontline leaders with more and more information. It’s coming from the top and they’re hoping frontline leaders understand it and institute it in the company for them. We all know what happens after these kinds of meetings. Announcements like this come out to the group:
- Here’s the new way we’re operating…
- Here’s how we’re pivoting with our product offerings…
- Here’s how we’re gonna attack the next three months…
- We’re taking our offerings online…
After that meeting, inevitably contributors walk into their manager’s office with questions and concerns. “What about this? I didn’t understand that. I don’t agree with this.” So, they’re back to having to wear a really big hat to consume all that themselves and still be that impartial, calming voice.
What can senior leaders to assist their frontline leaders during this unprecedented time?
It’s about three things for senior leaders to do, not the frontline leader:
- Pause with patience.
- Practice for perfection.
- Praise for progress.
What does “pause” mean?
The first step, pause, is meant to help senior leaders take a moment to stop and consider the amount of pressure their frontline leader is under. Don’t ask the frontline leader, “Are you doing OK? Oh, and here’s a list of everything you need to do.” Pause to understand what’s already on their plate and how they’ve been showing up lately.
It’s important to ask frontline leaders critical questions like, “How is this affecting your leadership? What challenges does it present to you? What can I do to help?” Dig into what’s causing them stress before challenging them with additional projects and processes. That’s what will get their buy in. It’s also where you’ll find the blind spots, too. Remember, we’re asking them to alleviate fears or calm the fears of everybody else, but what about them? So, pause and take a moment to have more than just a meeting. Make it a coaching session or connection session to better learn what kind of support we need to give that frontline leader.
Practice for Perfection
Typically, frontline leaders get lists from senior leadership on what to do and when to do it. You know the documents, 14 things to say about a new procedure, how to respond to FAQs, and where to send folks with more questions you can’t answer. But we don’t ever practice what these documents say. We just give it to those frontline leaders and move on. It’s critical for all leaders, senior and frontline, to set time aside to practice and test these documents before rolling them out to the company.
Practice provides opportunity to consider what might happen when something new is rolled out to the team. Many senior leaders like to think they come up with every scenario and practice it themselves, and then give you talking points. But the frontline leaders know what’s really going to happen with their team. Why not practice that craft before it happens? Nothing creates more anxiety in those frontline performers than ambiguity.
So, take time to practice messaging and the frontline leadership and frontline performer interaction and what that could really look like.
Praise for Progress
In this day and age, we are trying to get through each day and then move on to the next. And while that’s all well and good, because we need to be nimble and pivot, this approach doesn’t give us time to give feedback to our frontline performers. We should give authentic praise and thank them for what they’re doing, pointing out the good things they’ve accomplished with their teams. For real progress to occur, the senior leader must set up time to observe the frontline leader. Unfortunately, many of us feel too busy or pulled into too many directions to do that right now.
However, that’s where the value and growth of your leadership team comes from — taking time to point out, “Hey, when you were asked this question, you answered it this way and that was excellent, because it gets us closer to accomplishing our team goal.” It calms the nerves of others, gives better clarity, or shows you were listening compassionately. That’s the kind of praise that creates growth. It helps frontline leaders understand what they’re doing well and encourages them to do it more often.
Too often we turn praise on its head and we talk about punishment or negative feedback. “You had a good meeting but you said this wrong, and you did this wrong, and you did this wrong, etc…” So, praise the behavior you want, celebrate the progress that’s attached to it, and try to deal with mistakes in a way that still grows people and keeps them productive and moving forward.
Pause, practice, and praise. The key result here, in my opinion, is to build leaders in these times of struggle and uncertainty.
You don’t become a good sailor by navigating calm seas.
2020 has provided us with the amazing opportunity to build better leaders in 2021 by helping them understand how to steward people through rough times.