COVID-19 CEOs: stay alert for aggression, active and passive; be kind to self/others

You are the CEO because you are demanding on yourself and others. When the going gets tough, the tough become bloody unreasonable. Don’t.

The novelty of lockdown has long worn off. It’s now a grind; an economic nightmare looms; the possibility of a second wave, real. The divorce pains of Brexit, whether you voted for it or not, unavoidable.

The early days of Zoom awkwardness are a distant memory; interest in your bookshelves, a tired joke; early genuine politesse, now just faux.

You haven’t changed. Your life situation has. If you were a bully before COVID-19, you’re still one. If you were extremely passive-aggressive before the pandemic, rest assured the virus hasn’t cured you.

But bullying and extreme passive aggression are poles on a spectrum upon which we all sit, somewhere. We all bully, sometimes. We are all passive-aggressive, sometimes.

One client CEO said to me that s/he wanted to have had “a good pandemic”, a war reference. The importance of having a “good” war, not letting yourself or others down – I sensed this was a genuine wish and a real fear—a desire to behave well; fear of not.

You can’t fix those on the extremes of the aggression spectrum. But there are three things you can do as a CEO if you want to avoid your unconscious behaviour making things worse for yourself and others:

  1. Give bad things bad names. Don’t say on the one hand “these are unprecedented times, abnormal and weird” while on the other hand expecting everyone, including yourself, to behave normally. This is not the Blitz. This not about the Dunkirk spirit. Saying so is a disservice to both. This is a pandemic—a virus. Don’t personify it as an enemy. Enemies generate aggression. People are dying, but there are no bullets. You could die. Your colleagues could die. That’s a terrifying reality to face daily. Allow yourself and others to say out loud that they are afraid of a deadly virus. That’s normal behaviour. Create space for it. Don’t smother fear. Don’t shut people down. If you do, their fear will surface elsewhere under another guise where it may harm you, others and the business.
  2. Let yourself off the hook. You’re not a war general. You’re a CEO trying to get through this. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel s**t and not feel bad about feeling that way. This is an internal process. The first step in the FEEL/NEED/DO triad, a useful tool in relationship management. What do you feel? If you feel rubbish, acknowledge it. Next, what do you need apart from not feeling so awful? A break? Some TLC from someone else? Both? You feel what you feel. You need what you need. These are not up for debate. They are what they are. You may be a CEO, but you’re not omnipotent. You control neither your feelings nor your needs at this moment. They may change, but not now. They are what they are. But you can manage your options around what you do with your feelings and your needs. One option is to show your feelings and to make your needs plain to your team.
  3. You’re not a war general. It’s ok to show your fear to your team. In fact, it’s essential. Show your vulnerability, and your team will feel they have permission to show theirs. Moreover, you may get what you need from them. Just because you lead them doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t want to take care of you. But if you shut them down with aggression or passive aggression, you’ll get compliance. But the last thing you need in a crisis, that is not a war, is compliance to suit your moods. It could kill your business, if not you or them.

So, be kind to yourself and others, and you’ll get through this and, remember, #feckdevirus.

Ciarán Fenton

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