What are leaders saying when asking employees to “be flexible”?

-by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

Those who lead organizations of caring professionals right now will need to ask our staff and those we serve to be flexible. Every aspect of our work will happen differently for a while, and leaders are right to communicate this truth. However, leaders can sometimes ask employees to “be flexible” when they really mean something else. Here are three examples along with some helpful tools for you and your team.

“I’m not sure what’s going on, so I just need you to do your best for the foreseeable future.”

Right now, the key for leaders is to understand the difference between what we can’t know, and what we simply don’t know yet. For example, Higher Ground can’t promise that no one in their onsite wellness program will contract a virus, but they can build systems and safety protocols that will allow staff and families to make informed choices. Schools and universities who are deciding to return to in person instruction can create data-based decision rules for several scenarios, including what resources, training, and support their teams would need to implement for each possible outcome. 

When managing high levels of uncertainty about the future, developing several possible options will assist in establishing data-based criteria for evaluating options. Once options are evaluated, then equipping employees with the skills and resources to be ready to do whatever needs to happen first for each option is essential.

Tool: Imagine that you, your team, and those you serve are the main characters in a story. What happens next? Take out three or four post-it notes, and write down a few possibilities. For each of these possible events, ask, “What would we need to be ready to do first?” and ”What would I need if I have to accomplish this?”.  Make sure those resources are available. Notice how it feels to have the beginnings of a plan.

“Please be OK with your work being both important and impossible at levels you’ve never experienced.”

Right now, caring professionals are observing their capacity to do their best work shrink while legitimate and unmet needs in their communities expand. Expecting caring professionals to function at high levels without equipping them to do so is untenable, unsustainable, and unconscionable.

“Being flexible” is not about accepting an ever-growing list of impossible expectations without complaint. If schools, nonprofits, and agencies are serious about serving our communities, we must first be serious about serving those who do the work. 

Nearly every caring professional that I’ve asked is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. While many aspects of our work has always involved some amount of stress, ‘being flexible’ does not mean accepting that our work is both important and impossible. Leaders can dramatically improve the physical and emotional health of their organization by acknowledging what employees are feeling and eliminating expectations that don’t provide any tangible benefit to the organization or those they serve.  Leaders can also communicate about plans, and listen to caring professionals to minimize the pressure of the actual work.

‘Being flexible’ is about examining what we expect of ourselves, our colleagues, and our team in order to make informed decisions.  As a leader, there may be certain aspects of the work that needs to be examined as not necessary (or viable) at this time. Sometimes these tasks don’t matter at the moment, and removing unnecessary expectations is an essential component of organizational self-care. 

Tool: Draw a picture or imagine in your mind an image of what it’s like to be a person who works for your organization right now. If the picture depicts someone experiencing unhealthy levels of stress, what could be done to alleviate the stress? What might they ask for or need? Write some ideas down and bring them to your team.

“I need you to be OK with whatever I decide.”

The sheer volume of decisions that leaders of caring organizations are expected to make can feel overwhelming even when a pandemic isn’t disrupting everything about what we do. Right now, over-taxed leaders are making decisions that affect multiple stakeholders with dramatically different ideas about what needs to happen. The understandable temptation is to ask our team and our staff to ‘be flexible’ when what we really mean is “I can’t manage one more conflict right now…I need you to be OK with whatever I decide.”

Complete consensus is rare—and usually not a helpful goal. However, leaders can increase the likelihood that employees in caring organizations not only accept decisions but work to support them by involving staff in the planning process as early as possible.

Seeking staff input in decision making should be strategic and differentiated. Some staff may have the capacity to complete a survey, but can’t serve on a task force. Others may want to help at a high level, but would need someone else to take on some part of their work free up enough time to participate meaningfully.  In general, the more people that are involved in a decision, the task asked for should be focused on what we need them to accomplish.

Tool: Think about a decision you or your team are facing. What time, tools, and resources do we have that might increase the number of people available to help us move forward more effectively? Write it down, and do something about it.

It has always been essential to be flexible.

Certainly, being an effective, caring professional in the middle of a pandemic centralizes the importance of being flexible. However, while flexible caregivers might accept that how we accomplish our work will have to change, being flexible should not mean accepting that important problems remain indefinitely unresolved. Use the tools above to equip you and your team to work better and happier.

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