When you’re a leader during a crisis, everyone wants a piece of you. What’s the right piece to give?
Sharing who you are is important.
Not in the flashy, ‘look-at-me’ Instagram posts of the life you think you should lead.
No, we’re talking about openness and allowing people to know who you are, what you think and how you feel.
If that’s an intimidating thought, you are not alone. As a leader, as a human in general, it feels safer to keep people at a distance. Most of the leadership advice I was given when I first started out was the same – stay detached and cool – a typical corporate professional, who could then make dispassionate decisions without emotional repercussion. “It’ll be easier to make tough decisions.” “No-one should see that you care too much – they’ll see weakness.”
The thing is, though, that humans are skilled at mirroring. It’s often how we start to learn and it’s a skill that stays with us later in life. If someone is warm towards us, we tend to be warm back. If someone is a little awkward with us, we also tend to feel awkward, and if someone treats us with disdain or rudeness, well…
Right now, connection with your team is paramount. We don’t have the unthought-of luxuries of smiles, eye contact, handshakes and hugs – those small gestures that show who we are and build trust in relationships over time.
So, if you aim to remain inscrutable throughout remote work, it will take its toll on how your team views and trusts you.
Yet, we do have the opportunity to build creative new ways to replace our little trust-builders and share our lives, particularly during Covid confinement.
“So, my pets and children climbing all over me during video calls is good?”
Yes, as is your collection of Star Wars figurines on the shelf behind your chair – your team needs connection. Showing the real you allows them to build empathy – it’s important to be open with some of your defining characteristics and passions.
Of course, personal disclosure is a double-edged sword. There are only so many Tiger King-related video background changes one can cope with in a day! As a general rule of thumb, sharing is best when it informs others of your values, but does not impose them. If Tara loves working to heavy metal music, sharing a poster of a gig on the wall behind her lets people know of her passion. Keeping said music on during a Zoom call might cross the line between informing and imposition for her colleagues who prefer to code to Mozart symphonies.
There are many social and cultural factors that go into how to share more with others, but being willing to share is vital to protecting our team’s – and our own – mental health.
This remains true for all shared work environments. Many people feel too shy to show different facets of themselves, but – regardless of how brilliant the side of you is that you show to the world, if it is only one-dimensional, the problems will begin.
Pigeon-holing starts as an in-joke: “Oh, Tim is the sports guy.” It is often even intended as a compliment or show of care: “Julie is amazing in a crisis,” or “Yasmin is such a people person.”
Take a moment to think of each of your team members now. Which of them do you tend to associate with the one thing they project the most about themselves?
To begin with, these comments can feed the soul. However, when other people consistently hear or see the same thing again and again about who someone is, that impression instead feeds the brain’s need need to categorise things – and people – quickly.
To others, Tim becomes an “unthinking jock,” Julie “can’t make any mistakes” without losing her high-stakes reputation, so she stops innovating and starts blaming others for errors. Yasmin, of course, is a “better fit” for the people-care job as opposed to a promotion.
These patterns then get in our own heads. Occasionally, we feed off the validation. If that thing we’re known for is genuine and we’re encouraged to pursue our passion – brilliant! But if we are known for only that thing, we may start to feel limited, or undervalued.
And if our one thing isn’t even genuine, we get into even worse trouble. Now, we spend our time projecting a façade that isn’t even us. Have you ever been valued for your intelligence or cultural savvy, then pretended to have read a book or seen a movie you definitely hadn’t? The feeling of being a fraud tends to be an escalating one and may nudge us towards impostor syndrome.
In a work context, your team may expect Naomi to always know the technical answer. If this is her projected value, is she more likely to share knowledge up front, or hoard it to keep her value? And when she inevitably stumbles across something unknown to her, how easy is it for her to voice the words “I don’t know?”
“What we know matters, but who we are matters more.”– Brené Brown
More importantly, if we’re known for our love of Star Wars, will the online fandom forgive us for also liking Harry Potter – or even the newest trilogy? (Asking for a friend.)
So, be open to build connections at a time we need it most, but pay attention to cultural and organisational sensitivities.
And be genuine to protect yourself – you’re great, thank you very much. You’re the best at being you. Unless you’re Donald Trump. In which case Alec Baldwin was a much better version.