Leadership lessons from 2020: Navigating the new normal

By: Janice Endresen
stock photo: “new normal” sign in the middle of a work desk with a cup of colored pencils, a plant, a laptop, and a cell phone

Nearly a year ago, the pandemic ushered in dramatic and unprecedented changes to our lives, including working from home, which became ubiquitous in many industries overnight. As of December 2020, 41.8 percent of the American workforce remained fully remote, according to an Upwork study, which also predicts that 26.7 percent of the workforce will be fully remote throughout 2021. This “new normal,” in turn, created new challenges for business leaders and managers.

We asked several faculty members in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business about what key lessons leaders and managers can gain from the experiences of 2020 and apply to 2021 and beyond. Read about their insights, below.

Focus on enabling vs. controlling to ignite human potential and organizational impact.

Weekly progress update meetings, time tracking, checking people’s work, multi-step decision approval processes . . .  many of these habits can make us feel like we have things “under control.” Yet, in reality, a focus on control, as tempting as it may be—especially in a time of high uncertainty—doesn’t usually add value and is not the essential work of leaders.

Organizations are a collection of human beings coming together to create value that they could not create alone and this human/organizational connection has never been clearer than over the last ten months. A leader’s core task is to get people to collaborate to accomplish this goal: to focus on igniting the collective human power of our organizations. Igniting that human power could seem overwhelming for many leaders in this moment when employees are worried about the security of their jobs, financial stability, societal tensions, their own health, and the health of their loved ones. But the strongest leaders quickly surmised that engaging the complexity of what people have been facing was an essential part of mobilizing them in meaningful ways.

To ignite this collective response, various leaders across an array of organizations decided to focus on compassion and empowerment instead of control. By focusing on connecting with their people, they became better able to understand their perspectives, support them in the challenges they faced, and aid them in finding focus in the midst of chaos. These leaders iteratively stripped away activities of lesser value and increased trust in their people to do what is best for the organization. That did not mean leaving everyone to his or her own devices; it did mean a shift from controlling to enabling. Leaders who understood this became sounding boards as their employees solved problems, coaches for stretch assignments, and advocates for their team’s ideas—and in doing so, created a more powerful potential for results in the midst of a highly challenging year.

Our hope is that the leaders who made this switch continue down this path as we move to a new “normal” and that others observe these results and follow suit, allowing the learnings from a tough year to heighten employee engagement and organizational results in 2021 and beyond.

Laura Georgianna, senior lecturer of management and organizations, executive director of Leadership Programs, and Donald F. Douglas director of the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows program, and Glen Dowell,  professor of management and organizations, at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

photo of Laura Georgianna
Laura Georgianna
photo of Glen Dowell
Glen Dowell

Recognize the value of people who are conscientious and who connect across silos as well as those who are resilient and adaptable.

Personality traits like resilience and adaptability have been obvious key resources for navigating 2020. Less obviously, research shows that conscientiousness maps closely to those traits. This is helpful because some people might not perceive themselves to be high in resilience, but do perceive themselves as high in conscientiousness. And attending to details, persevering towards goals, and getting things done have proven their value in recent times.

The abrupt and seismic changes encountered in 2020 also showcased the importance of recognizing and valuing our interconnectedness. While leaders of organizations often express praise for people who integrate across silos, labor markets have tended to penalize the individuals who take on such boundary-spanning work. Organizations that walk the talk of support for these boundary-spanners—the very people who augment and strengthen an organization’s interconnectedness—are poised to do well.

Kevin Kniffin, assistant professor, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Read more about Kniffin’s research along these lines in this paper, COVID-19 and the Workplace: Implications, issues, and insights for future research and action, and in this story about it.

photo of Kevin Kniffin
Kevin Kniffin

Develop clear policies to help employees transition to a post-pandemic world, including guidelines about working remotely and on-site.

As 2021 rolls on and the pandemic begins to fade from view, managers must focus on the transition to a post-pandemic world. This focus will of course include interaction with stakeholders, especially customers; but it must center on a firm’s employees. Managers have an opportunity to reshape work, making remote work for some jobs and employees an option or maybe even a requirement. At the same time, managers should give employees as much autonomy as possible in deciding whether to work remotely, and when; and whether to work on site, and when. Designing schedules that judiciously allow as many members of an organization to rub shoulders with each other as possible, while retaining the motivational value and productivity of remote work, will be essential. In addition, it will be most important to squelch any perceptions (or, even worse, actual biases) that those who spend all their time on site, whether they need to or not, will be the only ones who progress in the organization.

Reenacting a strong and cohesive organizational culture and promoting the redeployment and growth of social capital inside and beyond the organization must be a foremost concern for managers in 2021 and the post-pandemic period.

Pedro David Pérez, senior lecturer of applied economics and management in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Beginning spring 2021, he is teaching a new course: Leadership and Management in Global Environments and Organizations.

photo of Pedro Pérez
Pedro David Pérez

Communicate clearly, constantly, and concisely with geographically dispersed teams—the new normal.

The events of 2020 sparked a fast-forward in the use of technology at and for work. Leaders who already placed an emphasis on technology have led the way:  Leaders in industries like IT, for example, experienced a milder learning curve. In other industries, while the movement and reliance on technology was prevalent, the pandemic forced the issue on a much greater scale. Leaders had to learn to trust employees to get work done in the absence of a physical and co-located workplace.

The 2020 pandemic caused a rise in communication and remote connectivity platforms. Successful leaders were vigilant in their adaptation. Clear, constant, and concise communication is of paramount importance for leaders and managers when teams are geographically dispersed, as they are now. A hybrid work environment has been born; it is the new normal and it will remain so in many fields of work. This means managers must shift from employee attendance to looking at results to measure productivity.

Donna L. Haeger is a professor of practice at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and faculty director of the Dyson Leadership Development program. In her research, she explores technology in the workplace, leadership, teams, and management.

photo of Donna Haeger
Donna Haeger