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Employee Engagement Leadership

Today’s Leadership Imperatives: Trust, Connection and Support

By Mark Coulter on March, 11 2021
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Mark Coulter

The world today has never been more complex. As the pandemic lingers on, the stress and psychological implications do as well. People are doing their best in a difficult, once-in-a-lifetime situation. The degree to which people’s lives been impacted varies; yet most people will agree that their way of life has changed in some way.

Working from home has also presented a lot of challenges for some: what was once viewed as a luxury has been a tough adjustment for many.

The overnight transition from working in a comfortable office to finding a productive workspace at home has been problematic, and in some cases, impossible. For some, the daily grind has never felt so heavy – the Zoom fatigue, the blurring lines between work and home, and the constant interruptions (i.e., parcel deliveries, dog, cat, kids, spouse, etc.) – as people try to navigate the new normal. Not to mention the responsibilities of ‘home room teacher’ that some parents have added their growing ‘to do’ list.

While most remain optimist for a swift return to normal, more questions than answers persist at this point. No one is clear as to what the new normal will look like, and when this new normal will begin.

The Employee Perspective

The pandemic, constant business disruption, and unrelenting demands and expectations relating to constant contact and immediate response times have not abated (and for some, they continue to grow).

This comes with a steep price: increased pressure and stress.

Despite this, most employees remain highly committed, and want to do nothing short of a great job even under these new, suboptimal circumstances. The good days can feel somewhat tolerable, but the bad days can feel insurmountable. Many feel torn between doing what is best for their company with taking care of their own needs.

The problem is, many do not know what to do or say when they are feeling overwhelmed.

Heroic, or burnt out?

Employees understand, at an intellectual level, the importance of resilience, optimism and agility. Most employees have demonstrated these traits to produce great results in the past, enduring through personal/ professional hardships to get the job done. Our North American work culture recognizes these traits and views these ‘never give up’ qualities as a badge of honor, often rewarding these ‘warriors’ with more work, more responsibilities or a bigger job. But what if these ‘heroes’ are now maxed out?

What if they…

  • need a break?
  • need support but are afraid to ask for it?
  • are secretly looking for another job because they would rather leave than admit that their plate is too full?
  • want to take some time off but feel like this is a career-limiting move?
  • are afraid to look weak or not committed to the company?


How many of your employees are caught between a rock and a hard place today? Feeling like they are damned if they ask for help and damned if they don’t.

But wait, isn’t it okay not to be okay? Why do employees feel like they need to shoulder their challenges on their own? Shouldn’t their manager want to hear what’s on their mind?

This is where leadership begins. It is time to humanize our interactions.

The Leadership Challenge

A leader is responsible for engaging, inspiring, and enabling their employees to do their best work. Getting the work done is, and always will be, important; however, failing to remember that there is a living, breathing human being behind the employee veil is more important than ever in these times.

Treating employees as human beings is first and foremost. People want and need connection right now, and this is where a leader comes in. A leader is responsible for finding out what their employees need, and how can they support them.

Employees need to feel safe and supported to have courageous conversations about how they feel both inside and outside of work. One cannot ask or demand vulnerability, the right space needs to be created for it to occur naturally. Once a strong relationship has been established that is built on mutual respect, trust and understanding, employees will see that their leader genuinely cares about their well-being; only then will open and honest conversations occur naturally.

Treating people as if they should be fine or expecting that they employ the ‘tough it out’ approach is akin to asking them to ignore an imminent threat.

Practical Tips to Support Your Employees

Leaders need to establish a safe environment, explore how employees are doing, and offer/ advice and assistance as needed. This sounds like a challenge - and it is.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Trust is the foundation.
    • Employees will not be vulnerable if they do not trust you. Full stop.
    • If your employees do not trust you, you need to fix this first.
    • Honest conversations cannot exist in an environment of mistrust.


  1. Be authentic and transparent.
    • People want to know the real you, not just the person with the title.
    • Show your employees who you really are. Talk about your struggles and what you are going through from a personal perspective.


  1. Establish regular connections.
    • It is important to talk to your employees regularly.
    • Start the conversation off by asking about how they are doing, then talk about business matters.
    • Rinse and repeat. 


  1. Stay curious, but not invasive.
    • Ask open-ended questions to get to know what is on your employees’ minds:
      • How are you?
      • What is going well/ not so well?
      • How is your workload?
      • What do you need from me?
      • How can I support you?
      • What can I do more of/ less of to support you?
      • What else…
    • Be mindful if an employee does not want to discuss a certain topic and move on to a different one.


  1. The ability to empathize is key.
    • Show genuine care and compassion.
    • Repeat what you hear back to them to ensure mutual understanding.
    • Treat people as they want to be treated, not as you want to be treated.


  1. Don’t make assumptions.
    • Don’t make assumptions about what they want or need.
    • Refrain from forcing a conversation. Employees will tell you what they need when they feel comfortable doing so.


  1. Demonstrate & instill confidence.
    • Express your confidence.
      • “I know that you can do it.”
      • Encourage them to stretch in a supportive way.
    • Put them at ease.
      • “You are a valued employee.”
      • “I am here to support you.”


  1. Always leave the door open.
    • Ensure that you leave the open for further conversations.
      • “If anything changes, please come see me.”


  1. Follow-through:
    • Make sure to follow-through on any commitments you make to your employees.
    • Remember: they are waiting for answers.

Some Final Thoughts

The secret to surviving a pandemic is to strengthen the bonds with the people who are closest to us, and this includes your employees. Everyone is in this together; however, it is important to remember that our circumstances and experiences can vary dramatically - “we are all in the same storm but in different boats”.

Leadership is neither a rank nor a title. It is a choice. The choice to provide care and protection for those whom we are responsible. – Simon Sinek

Employees will remember how they were treated by the people closest to them when they needed it the most. This can, and often is, the biggest unlock to driving employee engagement and commitment over the long-term. To lead, we must first show that we care. Demonstrating genuine care and concern should be commonplace, and it if it is not, the best time to start is now. Your people need you!

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