Lia Garvin of The Workplace Reframe: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Being empathetic. This means understanding everyone is processing all of the chaos differently, and making it safe for people to experience different emotions. For example, I mentioned one person might find turbulent times really exciting. Others might be scared. You might be somewhere in the middle. Being empathetic means making it clear that these different emotions and responses are welcome, and acknowledging them in your communication.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Lia Garvin.
Lia Garvin is the bestselling author of Unstuck, TEDx speaker and workplace strategist with experience leading team operations across Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Bank of America. With the pandemic turning workplace culture and team dynamics upside down, Lia’s passion for building effective teams became her purpose, and left a thriving career in tech to drive transformation in the workplace at scale. As the Founder of the The Workplace Reframe organizational strategy firm, she equips innovative organizations of any size and industry with the tools to cultivate inclusive, motivated, high performing teams resulting in higher retention, more efficiency, and better business results; and coaches individuals on how to build thriving careers. She is a sought after expert in the media, featured across Inc, FastCompany, ABC News, CNN Business, US News & World Report, HBR, and more.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you so much for having me here! Yes absolutely — my career started out as a project manager and really at the onset, I loved being able to roll up my sleeves and figure out what was getting in the way from teams performing at their best. I did this work in design agencies, in finance, and then eventually in tech. Throughout this work, I kept finding there were some themes that stood out differentiating teams that worked effectively together, where people delivered great results and wanted to stay on the team, from those that didn’t, and where motivation was low and work didn’t get done. The differentiating factors included inclusive cultures, strong communication where people listened to each others’ ideas, transparency from leadership, and an environment where people are treated as owners, and these became elements for the people-first approach I used to manage projects, programs, and eventually teams. This became the foundation for what I now bring to companies and teams as an organizational effectiveness consultant — and I’m now really excited I can help companies or any industry or size help bridge communication gaps, establish inclusive working norms, and withstand the change and uncertainty that the workplace is facing right now.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful to my parents who have supported and encouraged me throughout my entire life, and to my husband for his support as I wrote my book and left the corporate world to launch my organizational consulting business. From a professional standpoint, my manager Rachel Smith who I had for a number of years while at Google was transformational in helping me believe in myself and embrace my authenticity, boldness, and courageousness, even when it meant going against the grain.
One area I struggled with was being direct and not overloading a message with caveats, especially when I was delivering hard feedback or disagreeing with someone. We had a game where I’d test out the message with her, and she’d say “that’s about a 3 on the directness scale, turn it up to a 5,” and I’d say it again, and we’d adjust until I got it right. This was how she treated feedback in general — making it a helpful and almost fun exercise as opposed to one where I felt like I was being judged, and it created a safe space to be able to work through challenges with someone I knew had my back.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My organization The Workplace Reframe is dedicated to helping organizations inclusive, effective, accountable teams and individuals thrive in their careers. Right now, it is hard to be both a leader within a company and a high performer trying to navigate all of the change and uncertainty in the workplace. The whole reason my business exists is to help people work through that and feel like they don’t have to figure it out alone.
My personal “why”? We spend one third of our lives working, yet many of us are in jobs that we don’t like or don’t support us, where we’re not living up to our full potential, or where we are doing amazing work and it isn’t getting the recognition it deserves.. As someone who has always been cognizant of, and maybe a little terrified of, the rapid passage of time, it is a tragedy to me to have people spend so much time in an environment that isn’t working for them. With my work, I seek to change that, transforming teams and organizations from the inside out to create environments that are inclusive and supportive, and in parallel equipping people with the tools to be successful and effective within those environments.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As a people manager at the onset of COVID, it was a really, really difficult time to be a leader. Part of my job included supporting other leaders in how to manage their teams and communicate effectively with so much uncertainty around them. In this, I identified a few things that I think are really important to do during uncertain or difficult times:
One is to really make more time to connect. I think it can feel tempting for leaders to want to recede into the background and try to figure things out before coming up for air and sharing more. And that can have a detrimental impact on the team. When things are uncertain people are looking to their leader to see “this is someone I can lean on even when things aren’t clear. This is someone who will be here.”
With that said, the second thing is to know you don’t have to have all the answers. Showing up and being with people and saying, “Hey, this is hard. I’m here with you. We’re figuring it out together,” goes a really long way. People don’t expect you to have all of the answers, but they want to know that you are with them and that you aren’t going anywhere.
The third is being empathetic to the fact that everyone is handling uncertainty in different ways. Some people love change, other people dread it, some people find it exciting, some don’t. It’s important to not presume the way that you’re dealing with it is the way that everyone is, and instead approach leadership with curiosity and empathy; allowing whatever someone’s response is to be ok provided that they’re still working in a way that is respectful to others.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
My motivation really came from the purpose at the center of business, which is helping people feel more supported in the workplace. And so, ironically or not so ironically, my whole focus was really put to test when COVID hit and everyone needed so much more support at work. This accelerated people’s understanding of some of the essentials I had been talking about — psychological safety, inclusion, clarity and transparency in communication, so it fueled my motivation and drive even more.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I absolutely love the book, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. It looks at high performing teams across all different kinds of industries from military to athletic to restaurant, and talks about the key differentiators that made them rise above the rest. At their core, they create inclusive environments where people feel like they are a part of something special, where there is a high sense of belonging. I think it’s one of the greatest examples of connecting effectiveness, culture, profitability, and performance because when people feel like they belong, and they feel like they’re part of something special, they really can achieve greatness.
A great example he talks about is from the San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Popovich reminds his team members that they are a part of something special, that he has high expectations, but he knows they can meet them. Coyle refers to this as a “belonging cue” and it really is the secret sauce right there. This is an incredible tool that leaders can use to create psychological safety and also maintain a high standard.
Sometimes leaders can think, “If I create safety, it means the pressure is off and people won’t deliver strong results.” This is not the case, but it can be a misconception that can fuel leaders to lead with tactics like fear and micromanagement. This book shows that could not be further from the truth.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think creating a sense of stability is the most critical role. I mentioned the importance of showing up and not receding to the background and waiting to communicate until you have all of the answers. I think that is the role of the leader, to be that force at the center who will be there to answer questions, be vulnerable, and share information when they have it.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In person or on video, with context on how we got here, what the change or news is, and how they are supporting people. If in person or video isn’t possible, then phone. The point here is to not resort to email or chat/Slack for a hard message.
It is said that the actual “words” only represent 7% of our communication — the rest comes across in our tone, delivery, facial expressions, and gestures. If we communicate something in person or via video, we can express empathy, answer questions, and reduce misunderstandings that are lost when you lose the 93% that accounts for the rest of how we communicate.
Writing is also often harder for people delivering a tough message, resulting in it taking longer to share the news. Between overthinking what to say and worksmitting how something is being said, it can create a delay in getting the word out, or cause the message to be watered down. Instead, a conversation sharing where we are, what we know, and where we’re going is a communication you can do right away.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Even when priorities change or the competitive landscape requires a team to shift focus, the core direction, mission, and values should remain the same. When we keep these consistent, it’s easier for leaders to talk about shifts in priorities because they are still aligned to a north star. Leaders can make plans based on what they know at this moment and what is likely to be the right plan based on their and their teams’ expertise and understanding of the landscape, and communicate the kinds of things that will cause a plan to change course.
This helps to tee up conversations around how the team will assess tradeoffs and navigate shifts in priorities — something we really should talk about whether things are unpredictable or not, because there inevitably are always tradeoffs and shifts in priorities, we just don’t always acknowledge this beforehand.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I would say psychological safety hands down — as it has been found time and again to be the single most important factor for building effective teams. Psychological safety means creating an environment where it is safe to speak up, to make mistakes, to take risks, to disagree, without it being held against you. It’s been proven to drive effective teams because it sets the conditions to be able to have hard conversations, to share out of the box ideas, to innovate without worrying about failure.
If a team operates in a way where you have to “fall in line or else”, or where you can’t disagree, people start to hide mistakes, they hold back from pointing out risks, and they start contemplating their next move. Through the ups and downs of turbulent times, we have to establish psychological safety and continue to reinforce it.
Leaders can do a lot by modeling this and setting the example, sharing their own vulnerability, talking about mistakes openly and celebrating when people speak up, encouraging dissent that is presented in a respectful way. All of these actions go great lengths to encourage psychological safety.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The biggest mistake and the most common I’ve seen leaders fall into is micromanagement. When stress is high and we feel out of control, it can be easy to fall into the trap of diving too far into the weeds. We want to be able to focus on what we can control, but inadvertently it leaves people feeling unempowered, demotivated, uninspired, and it can lead to people leaving teams, or… you guessed it, “quiet quitting”. People feel like the leader doesn’t trust them or think they can do their jobs effectively.
If you’re trying to really maximize people’s efficiency and effectiveness and motivation during difficult times, you want to focus on empowering, on ownership based accountability, and on inspiring people as opposed to micromanaging. I’d say this would be my top one, two, and three most common mistakes to avoid: do not fall into the micromanagement trap.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
First, being empathetic. This means understanding everyone is processing all of the chaos differently, and making it safe for people to experience different emotions. For example, I mentioned one person might find turbulent times really exciting. Others might be scared. You might be somewhere in the middle. Being empathetic means making it clear that these different emotions and responses are welcome, and acknowledging them in your communication.
Second, being adaptable. Rigidity during uncertain times is really a recipe for disaster, and demonstrating that you can think quickly on your feet will help your organization weather the storm. This means not going silent when hard questions are raised, or receding into the background. It means being flexible and open to what the current situation will require and not imposing old ways of thinking when the context no longer calls for it. It means having an open mind.
Third, being vulnerable. Remembering that there’s strength and courage in vulnerability and that it brings you closer to your team members. Sharing what you’re worried about or are wrestling on the personal side to the extent that you feel comfortable, or sharing something you’ve worked through in your career. For example, as a leader of a law firm, sharing that you didn’t pass the bar the first time shows your team that you’ve had setbacks and overcome them, and establishes trust.
Fourth, being open to feedback. We can’t ask our teams to be open to feedback and then refuse hearing it when it’s directed at us. This is probably the most important on the list (since it makes you more empathetic and vulnerable in the process) This means demonstrating that you have humility around your work and want to create an environment where it’s ok for people to respectfully share where something isn’t working. It keeps you aware of problems before they get worse, before a behavior you might have unintentionally been doing creates an environment that doesn’t work for people and they consider leaving. Again, “quiet quitting” wouldn’t be so quiet if we are continually listening to feedback.
Fifth, being decisive. As a leader, people are looking to you for clarity and certainty. This doesn’t mean having to have all of the answers, but it means you have a bias towards action and gaining clarity when you don’t have it. It also means pushing decision making down your organization so the people closest to the information are empowered to make decisions. And most importantly, it means recognizing the difference between decisions that require longer deliberation and ones that can be made quickly and efficiently, because the truth is, most decisions are not huge or irreversible. When you can’t make a decision, you share why and what questions need to be answered in order to make a decision.
The leaders who embody all of these qualities set themselves and their organizations apart during turbulent times and will benefit from highly motivated, high performing, and highly accountable teams in return.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Check out my website at liagarvin.com and grab some of my free resource:
Key strategies for building high performing teams: liagarvin.com/teams
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Lia Garvin of The Workplace Reframe: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.