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Sustaining Leader Engagement and Effectiveness During the Prolonged Crisis of COVID-19

Charmaine Swanevelder

A second wave of COVID-19 is indicating a difficult winter ahead. Individuals and organizations will need to maintain the “new normal” against a backdrop of increasing frustration with wearing masks, and lockdowns and quarantines that impact their ability to live and work normally. Besides the risk to health and life that the pandemic presents, the combination of social isolation, lack of access to favorite activities, and an uncertain future are taxing everyone, as demonstrated by escalating statistics on depression and other mental health issues (Dresden, 2020; McKinsey & Company, 2020a).

Economic uncertainty, high unemployment figures, and social and civil unrest continue to fuel a sense of fatigue globally (McKinsey & Company, 2020b). It is easy to understand why corporate leaders find navigating the complexities introduced by COVID-19 overwhelming. The fatigue faced by decision makers as the situation drags out can be so daunting that some become prone to mentally “checking out” (Pannunzio, 2020).

Admiral John Richardson (2020), former chief of Naval Operations, suggests strategies to avoid burnout and prevent pandemic fatigue, stating that “you’re valuable as a leader, but you’re also vulnerable.”  He cautions that teams will suffer if the leader is the only person who can make all the decisions, advising that leaders should not make themselves indispensable. He outlines a number of ways to recover or “energize”:

  • “Fostering an authentic curiosity to find and fix problems,” including assessing an individual’s or team’s emotional state;
  • Taking a 360-degree approach so that supervisors, peers, and subordinates all contribute to your understanding of how things are going;
  • Setting goals and establishing a plan to achieve those goals, whether they are personal or professional—having goals allows a sense of control, but also a sense of collaboration helping to engage people.

Du Preez, Kriek, and Albright (2020) agree that putting leaders back in the driver’s seat and working towards goals increases engagement and performance levels. Their research also supports Richardson’s idea of “authentic curiosity”: Smart leaders are open to embracing new experiences, especially learning, which has a strong positive impact on energizing and engagement levels. A McKinsey & Company (2020c) study of company leaders revealed that helping teams learn is more valuable now than ever, with results indicating that:

  • 59% believe skill building is more important now than before the pandemic,
  • 67% place high/very high value on learning, and
  • 53% view learning as the best way to close their company’s capability gaps.

Learning encompasses listening and sharpening one’s ability to make appropriately confident decisions (Du Preez et al., 2020).  Being “appropriately confident” is the most important decision-making competence to master but often the one that suffers when leaders feel uncertain, making them more prone to taking excessive risks or engaging in decision-making errors (Krueger & Heck, in press).

It is important to understand how individual team members respond to uncertain situations and how this affects their decisions and ultimately, corporate performance. The decision-making process model developed by Du Preez (2016) and subsequently revised after being applied in several organizations (Du Preez, 2019) depicts this process. As shown in the illustration, daily events occur in the context of an organization. The perception of those events—whether as “known” or “uncertain”—triggers an individual’s emotional response pattern, which may result in “zoning out” (boredom), frustration, fear, hope, or sadness, among other emotions. These responses affect the manager’s decision-making competence—the ability to accurately assess risk, stay appropriately confident, remain objective, and maintain decision rules.

The perception of an event as “known” or “uncertain” is moderated by an individual’s cognitive ability to process information, their motivation toward a purpose, and the skills they possess. Personality and values moderate the way an individual reacts to their own feelings. Decision-making behaviors can be learned, but it is equally important to be aware of one’s unique emotions, moods, and personality as expressed under conditions of uncertainty when making those decisions in the work environment.

The model led to the development of a battery of multimethod tools and coaching that help leaders understand how their unique combination of personality, emotions, and moods operate together to shape their behavior and the day-to-day decisions they make. The tools include valid and reliable measures for assessing personality and emotional reactions to work events, as well as the prevailing mood of managers and teams. The assessments also measure applied transformational leadership behavior and decision-making competence with a valid 360 tool and incorporate goal setting and measurement of goal achievement.

Results obtained with participating leaders to date have included increased leader performance, as well as measurable impact on engagement levels, appropriate decision making, and leader effectiveness ratings. In a case at a retail organization pre-COVID, the assessments started at the middle manager level, eventually cascading lower. Over 2 years, measured leadership skills increased by 24%, and engagement improved by 16% company wide and by 60% for the management group trained. This same program has since provided similar results in an online format during the COVID pandemic (M. Du Preez, personal communication, December 7, 2020).

In a second case in a manufacturing company, effective leadership was shown to be a key factor in driving and improving safety performance in high-risk organizations. Incident rates were reduced by more than 60% after deploying the applied transformational leadership development component of this program over about 5 years (Fulwiler & Gerlach, 2014), and the rates have since been maintained at the new low (R. Fulwiler, personal communication, December, 2020).

These results demonstrate that increasing individual awareness of one’s unique reactions to uncertain situations result in radical improvement in employee and leader engagement levels, safety culture, and bottom-line results for organizations. Greater self-awareness allows leaders to make better decisions, becoming better leaders for their teams and the companies they represent. When chaos rules, helping leaders to set and meet goals creates a sense of control so they can engage people, working toward their goals as a team.

Pandemic or not, well-timed investment in effective programs to support leaders will always render a premium return on investment. Right now, it appears more essential than ever to proactively teach and support your leaders to handle the challenges the pandemic’s next phase will introduce and set your organization up for success despite the boulders that will inevitably be encountered along the journey.



Dresden, D. (2020) Tips on depression management in lockdown: Coping with COVID-19. Medical News Today. Retrieved at https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/depression-and-covid-19.

Du Preez, M.M. (2016). The role of personality in the relationship between feeling bored and decision-making competence: A study of managers in the retail industry (Doctoral dissertation). https://scholar.googleusercontent.com/scholar?q=cache:o9AjdDVkABoJ:scholar.google.com/+The+role+of+personality+in+the+relationship+between+feeling+bored+and+decision-making+competence:+A+study+of+managers+in+the+retail+industry+&hl=en&as_sdt=0,33

Du Preez, M.M. (2019). The Leadership Competence Indicator (LCI) Technical Manual. Croton-on-Hudson, NY: ITD Assessments.

Du Preez, M.M., Kriek, H.S. and Albright, J. (2020). Openness as moderator between feeling bored and managers' decision-making competence: A study of managers in the retail industry. In C.E.J. Härtel, W. J. Zerbe, and N.M. Ashkanasy (Ed.), Emotions and service in the digital age (research on emotion in organizations, vol. 16), pp. 193-216. Bingley, U.K.: Emerald Publishing Ltd. Retrieved at https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/S1746-979120200000016016/full/html?skipTracking=true

Fulwiler, R. D., & Gerlach, R. C. (2014, September). How transformational leadership drives continuous improvement and sustainability. ASSE Professional Development Conference and Exposition, American Society of Safety Engineers. https://www.ishn.com/articles/96210-a-tale-of-transformational-leadership

Krueger, J., & Heck, P. R. (In Press). The end of overconfidence: Review of “Perfectly confident: How to calibrate your decisions wisely” by Don A. Moore. The American Journal of Psychology. https://scholar.googleusercontent.com/scholar?q=cache:YitmGv_pgkQJ:scholar.google.com/+How+to+calibrate+your+decisions+wisely&hl=en&as_sdt=0,33

McKinsey & Company (2020a, November 23,2020). When will the COVID-19 pandemic end? McKinsey. Retrieved at https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/when-will-the-covid-19-pandemic-end

McKinsey & Company (2020b, December 9, 2020.). COVID-19: Implications for Business. Executive Briefing. COVID-19 and the great reset: Briefing note #34. McKinsey. Retrieved at https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/risk/our-insights/covid-19-implications-for-business.

McKinsey & Company (2020c, November 23, 2020). Rethink capabilities to emerge stronger from COVID-19. McKinsey. Retrieved at https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-accelerate/our-insights/rethink-capabilities-to-emerge-stronger-from-covid-19#

Pannunzio, C. (2020) Zoned out decision makers’ surprising response to the COVID-19 crisis. CEO World. Retrieved at https://ceoworld.biz/2020/09/29/zoned-out-decision-makers-surprising-response-to-the-covid-19-crisis/.

Richardson, J. (December 1, 2020.) Reenergizing an exhausted organization: A conversation with Admiral John Richardson. McKinsey. Retrieved at https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/reenergizing-an-exhausted-organization-a-conversation-with-admiral-john-richardson.



Charmaine Swanevelder is CEO of Synergy Talent Solutions, a vendor-neutral I/O Psychologist and SIOP member, currently serving SIOP as Theme Track Committee Member for SIOP 2021. Her company provides custom talent solutions both pre- and post-hire for business, partnered with prominent best-of-breed vendors, tailored delivery and reports focused on client needs. She actively works in the field of talent acquisition, learning and development, leader development & coaching, assessment centers and helps dysfunctional teams to get back on track with focused behavioral interventions. She resides in Austin, TX.

Charmaine is on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/charmaine-swanevelder/, and her website is https://synergytalent.solutions/

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