Have your leadership skills suffered during lockdown? Here’s why, and what you should do about it
Updated: Sep 30
Working from home continues to be the reality for so many leaders and their teams (particularly those of you who work in offices), and looks as though it might be for some time. Under constantly revised government guidelines, the ways in which we work are forever changing, and we are often being asked to switch where we work and, therefore, how we work. But many of these new considerations - the working from home; the online meetings; delivering less work to clients - can lead to a big problem for leaders and their teams: skills fade.
The last six months have changed all of us. Not just our worlds, but who we are. Our social lives and working patterns have veered sharply from ‘normality’. We are different to who we were. In particular, some of our skills are sharper (Zoom calls, anyone?), but some are less sharp. Being aware of what skills fade is and how to guard against it is essential for the immediate future.
What is skills fade and why should I as a leader be concerned?
Skills fade refers to the idea that over time, skills that are not used fade away. It’s why professional sports players found nifty ways to train from home, and one of the reasons why professional chefs may have turned their hand to cooking meals for people in need: to stop a skills fade happening to them.
But what about leadership skills? Whilst we know that athletes need to work their muscles to keep in shape, the idea that leaders might have to do the same seems a touch odd. Little consideration seems to have been given to the fact that many leaders haven’t interacted face-to-face with their teams for a very long time; many employees haven’t interacted with their clients; and plenty of services, processes and work tasks have been put on hold for times when we can ‘get back to business as usual.’
This is a situation that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Sarah Pittaway, Deputy Chief Executive at The Union Jack Club:
“We need to understand that staff returning to work in a range of roles, from chefs to pilots to surgeons, will have skill fade and it is an area I feel needs focus”
And it’s not just our ability to perform skillfully that has taken a hit, our mental well-being has understandably fallen victim to the strange times in which we find ourselves. The New York Times suggests that the pandemic induced deprivation of physical interaction with our peers and colleagues has left us in a position of social awkwardness:
“We are subtly but inexorably losing our facility and agility in social situations — whether we are aware of it or not.”
A wonderful colleague of mine couldn’t have put it better: “I’m so used to interrupting people on Zoom because it’s the only way you get a turn to speak, I am struggling to have a normal conversation where we take turns properly.”
For leaders, a fading in social skills could be a disaster if left unchecked. Now is the time to act if you fear that you or your team’s skills are at risk of fading due to fluctuating routines in the workplace.
Identify skills gaps that are developing
To better understand how we as leaders need to approach this in our organisations, we should begin by recognising that no one is immune to skills fade: neither us nor our teams. The first step to curtailing the influence of any drop off in competency is to address the challenges facing those making the decisions. Firstly, identifying where support needs to be given to people who’ve lost skills. Secondly, working out what type of learning and development opportunities are going to be most helpful. Thirdly, making sure that it’s handled sensitively.
Just as schools are needing to be sensitive to the emotions of kids who have forgotten some of what they had learned prior to lockdown, equally a discussion addressing a possible skills fade can be a difficult conversation to have with a member of staff. If you as a leader can show your own vulnerability, and perhaps reveal an area or two where you are struggling, you may find that they are more willing to accept your help.
Practice skills that you are losing
Once potential gaps have been identified, it is useful to structure opportunities to allow for these skills to be kept fresh. If it’s innovation skills you’re worried about fading, you could organise a socially distanced or virtual activity day which taps into those traits. If it’s customer service skills that are at risk, a series of online role-plays with professional actors could help them to remember what works and what doesn’t. Social skills can be built just like an athlete’s muscles and if they’re in danger of wasting away, they need to be built back up again. Don’t be tempted to keep putting off the monthly catch-ups that you have with your team members, just because it feels like a hassle to do them remotely. You may claim you haven’t done this, but if you look honestly at your diary before March and after March, you’re bound to see a few types of meetings and activities that you have let slip.
So, don’t put off appraisals, or ideas generation sessions - just keep trying to do them in whatever way you can. All of this will help you to maintain the skills - even if in slightly different ways to usual. Yes, it can be really intimidating the first time you have to transfer something to an online setting - particularly if it’s something sensitive (an appraisal); or cumbersome (a 20-person creative session). But give it a go. Your team will appreciate your efforts to keep things moving, and if you establish that you want a dialogue about how they feel it went, then you can learn from it, too.
Find new ways to maintain skills
As previously mentioned, many companies are working things out as they go along, trying to implement new directives with a minimal impact on clients and colleagues. And the same can be applied to addressing skills fade. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Do what is necessary for the well-being and health of your leadership. There are plenty of examples of chefs out there who, at the risk of their restaurants being closed and them letting their skills fade helped society out by cooking for those in need. One Hackney (London) restaurant, Perch, started the ‘Dinner Dash’, which over a three-month period delivered 45,000 meals to vulnerable people all over East London. Like Perch, if you find that your skills aren’t being used by your job right now (or those of your team aren’t), are there ways that you can put them into the service of others? I know plenty of coaches who are giving their new free time on a pro-bono basis to those who’ve found themselves affected by covid. For example, AoEC are offering free coaching, mentoring and mindfulness to NHS staff. It keeps the coach’s skills honed, and gives back to society as well.
So, if you’re thinking about leadership skills, does your children’s school need help? How about your local homeless shelter? Colleagues who are out of work? Charities?
Another alternative is to take an online course to protect your skills in a particular area. Udemy and other online training suppliers are a great place to look. If you’re no longer excelling at Excel, or your Public Speaking is starting to feel as though you should never go public with it again, you will find plenty of inexpensive training solutions - many under £20. There are plenty of other providers, too, but I hear very good things about Udemy from so many people I work with.
Embed newly acquired skills into the workplace
It’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the skills we need to be continually flexing to keep our workforce fresh, but what about championing the new skills we’ve learnt? Who’d have thought some of us would have become so adept at using video conferencing software to keep connections alive? Or that we’d have become so good at using webinars to generate new business leads or forge new relationships?
As leaders, it’s your job to recognise the acquisition of new skills and techniques and consider how they might be relevant moving forward in your organisation. As such, we need to find ways to amalgamate our ever-developing skills with our pre-lockdown personas, creating a synergy between the two. For example, perhaps online communication has made us better listeners, and so now we will be better listeners face-to-face?
Whatever your current situation, and however you intend to lead your team through this time, by addressing skills fade you can be sure that you are guarding against a potential drop off in those skills most important to your company. Not only that, the positive impact of adapting and attempting to thrive in this unusual environment - rather than finding ways of simply weathering the storm - will make you a better leader, and your team a stronger unit.