Tips for leaders in challenging times

6 Apr 2020

boss in boardroomCOVID-19 has created new challenges for us all. But managing those challenges, and helping others to manage them, is a particular concern for leaders — whether their task is to lead a country, a business, or a small work team. So what advice can we give them?

The following tips are based on findings from two decades of research that researchers in UQ’s School of Psychology have conducted with colleagues around the world. In particular, they reflect insights that are documented in the soon-to-be published second edition of the award-winning book The New Psychology of Leadership, and that are built into the award-winning 5R Leadership Development Program.

These insights centre on the observation that leaders are most effective when they engage in what we call identity leadership. This involves creating a sense of shared social identity (a sense of “us-ness”) in the groups one leads, and then working to represent, advance, and embed that sense of shared social identity through one’s policies and actions.

The points that follow spell this out by looking at each of the 5 Rs in turn.

1. Ready yourself and your group for shared challenges.

Now, more than ever, the key asset in your group is the group itself — and an associated sense that “we are all this together”. In particular, group-based connections provide a platform for morale and citizenship, as well as for support and resilience. As a leader, your main priority is therefore to look after, and out for, the people in the groups you lead.

2. Reflect on the circumstances of those in the groups you are leading.

These are difficult times, but do not make assumptions about the difficulties people are facing or about the forms of support they need. Connect with your group — especially its more vulnerable members — and take the time to find out about group members’ situation and, in particular, about their concerns and needs. Find out too what is going on in the other important groups in their lives.

3. Represent what is important for your group in your dealings with others.

Once you have clarified what matters for your group, work with group members to identify key challenges and reasonable goals for the future. Where relevant, communicate these to others who need to know about them. Make meeting these challenges and goals a focus for your own endeavours.

4. Realise your group’s strengths and be aware of its limitations.

Work with your group to develop strategies and stuctures that will help you work together to achieve your shared goals. Be flexible and creative — and be prepared to adjust these as the group’s circumstances change.

5. Report back to your group on progress.

Set time aside to connect with your group (in whatever way works best for them) and to update them on things they care about. Focus on the progress that has been made towards the group’s goals, but also identify key challenges that remain to be resolved. If possible, use this as an opportunity for group members to connect with each other. Above all else, make sure that you really are “all in this together”.

About the authors

alex haslamAlex Haslam is Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at The University of Queensland. His research focuses on the study of group and identity processes in organisational, social, and clinical contexts.

nik steffensNik Steffens is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow and Senior Lecturer in UQ's School of Psychology. His research focuses on self and identity, leadership and followership, motivation and creativity, and health and well-being.

sarah bentleySarah Bentley is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the UQ School of Psychology. Her research focuses on the process of identity development and identity activation within the educational space and within organisational settings, as well as within more generalised contexts, such as transitioning into retirement.