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Finding your voice in the virtual office

By David Chapman

The presenting past

I woke up this morning with a deep sense of disquiet – feeling quite overpowered by something that happened with my father almost 2 years ago, with the repercussions still reverberating. Waking up into a world where pandemic fatigue, global warming, social and racial injustice, and work demands are all very present; then going up to work in my home office in a quiet house, on my own; like so many others, feeling the need to be highly productive, yet feeling very empty and alone.

Now, look, I have a therapist, and a network of good friends who are comfortable in the world of emotional disclosure, and still I’m feeling like this. So, what is it like for people who really have lost all their outlets for things like social connection, and for release?


Without support it might well lead them to withdraw, to shut down, to retreat from other people, because of this fear of being seen as somebody who can’t hold it all together. And if they allow that sense of shame, that sense of isolation, to shut them down and not speak up, they will be self-muting. The days of getting up from your desk and walking down the hall and asking somebody a quick question or seeking the gratification of immediate feedback are either on long hiatus, or a thing of the past for many working people.

Dana Jack, of Harvard University, came up with the term “self-silencing” – restricting our self-expression in relationships out of fear because we’re trying to comply with what’s expected or not be a burden to somebody else. But when we mute ourselves – when we don’t get the help that we need – we end up more frustrated, in a state of disconnection, and resentment, and misunderstanding. We are all learning how that can end up with a whole host of emotional and physical health challenges.

So, what can be done to help people find their voice? How do we create open communication, enable vulnerability to be expressed, stay productive, and meet our needs appropriately in whatever new working situation we find ourselves in? And how do those who feel most responsibility for the People function play their part in facilitating all of this?

A recipe for sailing past crisis

Firstly, in times of crisis, the virtues followers need most from leaders (says research from Gallup) are trust, empathy, stability, and hope.

Nice, simple recipe, eh? But if we’re not confident about when we’ll return to the office, that’s becoming more and more complex for work culture every single minute. How do we build trust when we can’t see fully see each other? Brené Brown’s book “Dare To Lead” referenced a study of 1000 leaders, and they found that the most common behaviour that earns leaders trust was when they asked for help; because it reflects a level of humility. It reflects a level of self-awareness – knowing our own limitations or being able to sense our blind spots, or the shadow sides of our strengths. A Zanger Folkman study echoed this – it looked at a group of 50,000 managers, and they found that the managers and leaders who asked for feedback and acted on it were rated as the most likeable, the most approachable, and the most trustworthy.

So how can leaders lead with curiosity and humility? One of my HR Director clients, after participating in the monthly HR Leaders Forum that I run, reflected on the need to embrace this humility, and decided to write an open letter to her entire workforce, speaking openly about her struggles with the lockdown, with staying positive, with the pressure of needing to be seen as a superwoman leader/mother! The letter had a searing honesty – it received many positive responses from people who suddenly felt they had been given permission for their vulnerabilities to be acknowledged. What release of pressure it evoked! I am convinced it has dramatically deepened trust in her and her leadership.

Empathy in a cold climate

This links to empathy – how can I fully acknowledge the space you are in right now? And how do I do it best when you are only a 2-D image on my screen?! My belief is that we have to really ask “how are you?”, and not necessarily accept the polite “Oh I’m fine, thanks”. Give people the space – and the time – to really answer. Because to marshal our true thoughts and feelings takes time…and that’s if we believe we are truly being invited to express our authentic and honest state or mood. The adjunct to that is knowing that we are in the place of mindfulness, of openness, curiosity, and kindness to really listen to the answers. So we need to check in with ourselves first before opening up that kind of dialogue.

Cultivating stability

To create stability, I think it’s vital to give people acknowledgement; for what they are, as well as what they do. If it’s only the latter, that can drive others to feel they need to endlessly over-deliver, just to get any kind of validation. Being regularly and truthfully acknowledged cultivates a rock-solid sense of inner belief, that helps us navigate the vicissitudes of life – think of acknowledgement as the waves that keep us buoyant, keeping us high above the sharp rocks of self-doubt and despair that capsize us. It is vital to cultivate this in an organisation – the lack of acknowledgement is frequently stated to me by clients, and it creates a toxic and corrosive hollowing out of positivity and wellbeing. The irony is that it is so simple to do – simple, but not easy, if the dominant culture is boorish, macho, insensitive, or emotional stifled. Stability gives people the basis to speak up.

The wellspring of hope

For me, hope means telling stories that inspire people, both by painting a plausible and aspirational picture of a brighter tomorrow; and illustrating how we have overcome similar crises and troublesome periods, along with what virtues we demonstrated, and what lessons we learned. It will be all too easy when lockdown ends to brush this all under the carpet, pretend it never happened, and try to return to the status quo.

Only by acknowledging the past – celebrating its victories and grieving its losses – do we protect and cherish our voices and give us the strength to keep speaking up; finding the fullest expression of ourselves (and therefore our own organisations). As the poet Margaret Mead said, “Your playing small doesn’t serve the world”.

David Chapman enables HR Directors to conquer their influence problems and secure the ear of their CEOs. He is the co-host of Espresso Briefing, a podcast that briefs time-poor executives on the latest insights in leadership, culture, and performance. His CSR contribution is to train advocates to give a voice to the dispossessed in society.

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