The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership

by Gianpiero Petriglieri

When I ask groups of managers what makes a good leader, I seldom have to wait long before someone says, “Vision!” and everyone nods. I have asked that question countless times for the past 20 years, to cohorts of senior executives, middle managers, and young students from many different sectors, industries, backgrounds, and countries. The answer is always the same: A vision inspires and moves people. Expansion, domination, freedom, equality, salvation — whatever it is, if a leader’s vision gives us direction and hope, we will follow. If you don’t have one, you can’t call yourself a leader.

This enchantment with vision, I believe, is the manifestation of a bigger problem: a disembodied conception of leadership. Visions hold our imagination captive, but they rarely have a positive effect on our bodies. In fact, we often end up sacrificing our bodies in the pursuit of different kinds of visions, and celebrating that fact — whether it is by dying for our countries or working ourselves to exhaustion for our companies. Visions work the same way whether mystics or leaders have them: They promise a future and demand our life. In some cases, that sacrifice is worth it. In others, it is not. Just as it can ignite us, a vision can burn us out.

When a leader’s appeal rests on a vision alone, leadership is not whole. And the limitations of such visionary leadership become painfully obvious in times of crisis, uncertainty, or radical change. Take the coronavirus pandemic. No one had anything like it in their “Vision 2020.” Crises always test visions, and most don’t survive. Because when there’s a fire in a factory, a sudden drop in revenues, a natural disaster, we don’t need a call to action. We are already motivated to move, but we often flail. What we need is a type of holding, so that we can move purposefully.

What do I mean by holding? In psychology, the term has a specific meaning. It describes the way another person, often an authority figure, contains and interprets what’s happening in times of uncertainty. Containing refers to the ability to soothe distress and interpreting to the ability to help others make sense of a confusing predicament. Think of a CEO who, in a severe downturn, reassures employees that the company has the resources to weather the storm and most jobs will be protected, helps them interpret revenue data, and gives clear directions about what must be done to service existing clients and develop new business. That executive is holding: They think clearly, offer reassurance, orient people and help them stick together. That work is as important as inspiring others. In fact, it is a precondition for doing so.

Holding is a more obscure and seldom celebrated facet of leadership than vision, but no less important. And when crises hit, it becomes essential. In groups whose leaders can hold, mutual support abounds, work continues, and a new vision eventually emerges. When leaders cannot hold, and we can’t hold each other, anxiety, anger, and fragmentation ensue. In a study of BP during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, for example, my INSEAD colleague (and wife!) Jennifer Petriglieri observed both outcomes. She found that BP’s top talent, which the company needed to resolve and recover from the crisis, had different reactions to the crisis. Some lost faith in the company and in its leaders. Others doubled their effort and commitment. The difference between the two groups? The former was exposed to the top brass’ upbeat messages. The latter had bosses who drafted them to help clean up the mess. Despite the stress, working closely with one’s boss and colleagues on the response was more containing and informative. It reassured those who did it about the company’s integrity and long-term viability. Being held as we work through a crisis, the study concluded, is more useful than being told how bright the future is.

It was Donald Winnicott, a pioneering British psychoanalyst, who first conceptualized holding in this way. He observed that being held well was necessary for healthy growth in children. Parents who were available but not demanding, reassuring but not intrusive, responsive but not reactive, present even if not perfect, Winnicott observed, provided a “holding environment” that made children comfortable and curious. Holding made space for them to learn how to make sense of, and manage, their inner and social worlds—and to develop a robust sense of self. That is, a self with a healthy regard for its abilities and limitations, a self that can learn, play, work, face hardships, and sustain hope through it all.

Caretakers who held well, Winnicott noted, did not shelter children from distress and turns of fate. But they buffered children enough that they could process distress, and helped them find words to name their experiences, and ways to manage it. “Are you angry, love? Is that why you kicked? Come here. How about we tell your brother to leave your bear alone, instead.”

Children who are held well, Winnicott discovered, became more sociable and independent as grown-ups. They neither became paralyzed when faced with challenges, nor sought rescue from parental figures. They did seek help when needed and made good use of it. Winnicott called such selves true, meaning that they were free to make their way in the world, and he saw such strength and freedom as the result, one might say, of a competent kind of love. He also observed that they could offer it in turn. They had learned to hold themselves and others too.

Good holding, in short, not only makes us more comfortable and courageous. It makes us. That was Winnicott’s major insight, one as revolutionary now as it was then. His work refined Freud’s idea that socialization tames us and can make us neurotic. That only happens, Winnicott observed, when authorities impose a vision of who we must be that leaves us little room to discover who we can become. Neurosis, he contended, is not the product of what socialization does to our instincts, but of what it fails to do with our potential. Mental health and freedom, then, take learning new ways of relating to each other.

Children are not the only ones who need holding to survive and grow. Adults do too, throughout their lives. To face difficult circumstances, master new conditions, and develop in the process, we need holding from leaders and organizations. And we need to hold each other.

When we expand the definition of holding beyond child development, however, it becomes clear that there are different kinds of holding. In his later works, Winnicott hinted that the immediate, intimate holding that he spent most of his work describing works best when it occurs in a broader context of a society that is itself secure and free enough to render interpersonal holding less necessary. That was one of the functions of a democratic society, Winnicott argued: making it less indispensable for members to rely on their next of kin.

In my own research I have drawn a distinction between interpersonal holding and this broader institutional holding. Ideally, good leaders provide both, in a crisis and beyond. This is how.

Leaders provide institutional holding by strengthening the structure and culture of an organization or group. They do it, for example, when they put in place policies and procedures that reassure people about their job security or how fairly the organization is treating them. They do it when they promote dialogue that lets diverse people participate in decisions and in adapting to new challenges together, rather than encouraging polarized factions. For leaders in executive positions, this is the most impactful way of holding people in a crisis. Failing to provide it makes expressions of sympathy and understanding ring hollow. Providing institutional holding, conversely, will often make people forgive even personally dislikable leaders their remoteness.

To provide institutional holding, tell your people what will happen to their salaries, health insurance, and working conditions. What will change about how they do their work? What are the key priorities now? Who needs to do what? You might not be able to make predictions, but you can still offer informed interpretations, that is, why certain measures are sensible and needed instead of others. Dispel rumors. Encourage and protect everyone’s participation even more than you usually do. Do these things before you recommend the usual regular breaks, meditation, or exercise — otherwise you will just be neglecting your duty of care.

Once you have provided institutional holds, turn your attention to interpersonal holding, offering it to others and modeling it for them. To do this well you must let yourself be in the present. Your impulse may be to focus on the future but that will be little more than escapism if you cannot witness and understand people’s immediate experience and concerns. (Even if you can’t resolve them!). You need to muster a lingering, attentive availability that lets others “go on being,” as Winnicott put it. This is more than just being around and supportive when needed; it is a mixture of permission (to feel whatever it is that we are feeling without being shamed or overwhelmed) and curiosity (to consider different ways to understand our circumstances and, eventually, to imagine our future). Remember, as Winnicott described it, the core of holding is acknowledging distress and difficulty without giving in to powerlessness.

Leaders are not the only sources of holding. There is much we can offer each other, at work and elsewhere. In a study of successful independent workers, Sue Ashford, Amy Wrzesniewski, and I found that they invested heavily in cultivating a holding environment with peers and with behaviors that tempered the financial and emotional volatility of gig work. In her study of working couples, for example, Jennifer Petriglieri found that the most successful held each other reciprocally. Each partner helped the other face their career struggles and grow professionally, not just at home. When I reviewed the literature on grief, for a piece I wrote with Sally Maitlis on mourning in the workplace, again I found that a holding presence—capable, first, to just bear witness to another person’s pain, and later to help them find new meaning—was the most valuable gift a peer (or a manager) could offer. That gift is even more important when the loss is shared. Holding brings us back to life together, then.

People never forget how managers treated them when they were facing loss. And we will remember how our institutions, managers, and peers, held us through this crisis — or failed to. We also see the consequences of past failures of holding, in those institutions struggling to mobilize an already depleted pool of resources. It is tempting to resort to command and control in a crisis, but it is leaders who hold instead that help us work through it.  And it is to those leaders, I believe, that we’ll turn to when time comes to articulate a vision for the future.

When I ask managers to reflect a bit more on the leaders whose visions they find most compelling and enduring, they usually realize that none of those leaders started from a vision or stopped there. Instead the leader started with a sincere concern for a group of people, and as they held those people and their concerns, a vision emerged. They then held people through the change it took to realize that vision, together. Their vision may be how we remember leaders because it can hold us captive. But it is their hold that truly sets us free.

Source: Harvard Business Review


8 tips for driving digital strategy during COVID-19

By Clint Boulton

From deliverable schedules to procurement windows, virtually every IT timeline has been compressed by the coronavirus crisis. Those three- to five-year horizons for digital transformations? They’ve shrunk to months thanks to the pandemic, say some CIOs and consultants.

As is often the case, the truth is more nuanced. Big Bang transformations have been streamlined — not sidelined — in favor of short-term priorities. Having stabilized email, boosted bandwidth and battle-tested VPNs to fulfill mandatory work-from-home policies, CIOs have set their sights on innovation. Companies such as Nationwide have digitized software development to accommodate employees working remotely and to serve customers without a hitch.

The new normal

Such is the new normal for most large companies, and IT “will be in the middle of that,” according to Rick Pastore, senior research director of The Hackett Group. Mobile devices and software, cloud and other digital tools grant CIOs greater flexibility than they’ve had previously in supporting how and where employees work, Pastore says.

Moreover, objections to smart automation, machine learning, advanced analytics and other emerging technologies that require robust investments will “melt away” — if they haven’t already, Pastore predicts. Many CIOs have created new analytics dashboards to chart productivity and have built bots to digitize manual tasks. Others have changed the way they meet with business peers during the pandemic, with a mind toward preserving that method in the future. Continue reading

Now Is an Unprecedented Opportunity to Hire Great Talent

by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz

While the Covid-19 pandemic hits and reshapes companies, industries, national economies, and our society in previously unthinkable ways, business leaders need to think beyond survival to the opportunities this crisis might create, not only for their own organizations but the greater good. Chief among these is a chance to hire talented people at a time when they might have trouble finding or keeping jobs elsewhere.

According to The Economist, four-fifths of CEOs worry about skill shortages — up from half in 2012 — while outside hiring at the top reached record highs, causing business for large global search firms to increase by 9% to 15% last year.

Now, many companies are laying off workers and downsizing. Some sectors are collapsing. It seems an unprecedented number of people, around the world, from new graduates to seasoned veterans, will be looking for employment. At the same time, a major force that had been fueling the intensity of the war for talent — globalization — might recede. As companies revisit their international expansion strategies and cross-border business practices, workers are recalculating their personal purpose and individual and family priorities, with serious implications for their geographic and work preferences and travel habits.

The pool of available talent is suddenly both changing and expanding, and visionary leaders can make the most of it, preparing the ground for post-crisis recovery and growth. As management guru Jim Collins has shown us, making the leap from good to great starts with getting the right people on the bus.

History Lessons

Throughout history, economic hardships have created windows in which exceptional employees and leaders are widely available for a limited time. In the late 1940s, for example, many organizations were struggling. At Hewlett-Packard, the fledgling electronic equipment maker that would eventually become one of America’s best-known technology companies, business was slow and finances strained. But as legions of great engineers streamed out of closing or soon-to-close U.S. military labs, HP’s legendary founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard realized they couldn’t let such an amazing hiring opportunity pass them by. When asked how they could afford to keep taking on new people in those difficult years, their answer was simple: “How could we afford not to!”  Years later, when asked about the biggest contributor to HP’s success over the years, they routinely cited their willingness to invest in talent no matter the external economic climate.

While most of us become short-sighted and irrational during crises, the best leaders and organizations stay calm and use them to their advantage, sprinting away from their competitors and never looking back. To use another analogy, they bring in architects to plan the new building even as the firefighters work to save the old one.

Harvard Business School’s Ranjay Gulati, Nitin Nohria, and Franz Wohlgezogen considered the benefits of this kind of long-term thinking in an analysis of 4,700 companies across the last three recessions. They discovered that 9% were able to come out in much better positions than they entered because of their “progressive” focus. They did cut back, but were extremely selective about when and where they did so and, more importantly, they continued to make strategic investments. Rather than thinking in “either/or” terms — you’re either hiring or you’re downsizing — they, like HP following the war, embraced the “and,” understanding they could do both things if they were smart about it.

Unfortunately, most companies make the mistake of uniformly freezing hiring in downturns. During the 2008 global financial crisis, BCG and the European Association for People Management surveyed 3,400 executives, including 90 senior human resources leaders in more than 30 countries, to see how they were responding. The most frequent action (or reaction) was to scale back recruiting. At the same time, survey participants rated the selective hiring of high-performing employees from competitors as one of the three most effective responses to the previous crisis (from a list of 22) and the one with the best impact on employee commitment. This irrationality is widespread. Those who stay rational can capitalize on it.

Seizing the Opportunity

So, how should visionary leaders go about capturing this once-in-a-century hiring opportunity? Through urgent and disciplined engagement in several initiatives:

These will probably be individuals they frequently deal with (as suppliers, advisors, clients), or even assessed as past potential candidates. In your next executive team meeting, discuss everyone’s selections, rank them in terms of attractiveness for and to your company, and agree on who to contact. It’s possible that many will now be open to considering an offer because their circumstances have changed. One of the best staff hires I ever made for Egon Zehnder was a brilliant young executive I’d previously met in Latin America whose career I had tracked closely for more than 10 years. He’d told me he would never consider joining the executive search profession. Yet, two decades ago, at a crucial time in his career as a CEO of a sizable company, the time was right. I asked, and he came on board. He has since become a global partner and office leader in his home country, as well as playing all sorts of key global roles.

Set up a task force to source potential candidates from target sectors and companies who may now be either jobless or open to change.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has repeatedly stated that the company’s high hiring bar is a critical factor in its success. When many years ago I spoke at one of its global recruiting summits, I met an army of hundreds of Amazonians dedicated to exactly that: bringing in the most promising new hires from target sectors and companies. One of them specialized full time in the military sector, in his view one of the best sources of talent in the United States. All companies should bring this level of focus and discipline to sourcing potential candidates, especially during this period. Insist that your senior HR leaders step up their efforts and purposefully assign some of your top-line managers to scout for outstanding people in key functions, particularly ones coming from hard-hit sectors such as airlines, hotels, and recreation, or start-ups that might already be faltering in the face of recession.

Interview and check references remotely with the same rigor you would in person.

Thanks to modern technology, we have the ability to replicate all of our traditional hiring processes and procedures in remote, physically distanced settings. Telephone calls and video conferences are a must. And then follow the same guidelines for great recruitment experts have described for years. Outline the qualities and competencies you’re looking for in a new hire before you start; at this time of flux, I would give heavy weight to soft skills, including inspirational leadership, change management, collaboration, and influencing, as well as the potential to keep growing, learning, and adapting to new circumstances. Such potential will stem from their curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination, on top of the right motivation. Ask behavior-based questions, such as “Could you tell me about a time you led your team through a big transition?” Record your thoughts and observations about how the person measures up to your initial metrics as soon as you’re done. Bring in more than one but not too many interviewers and compare notes with them. And carefully check references. Decades of social research have concluded that third-party opinions are much more accurate than individuals’ own views of themselves, particularly for soft skills.

Go out of your way to motivate the best candidates. 

Once you are convinced that you have the opportunity to bring in someone you really want, arrange to have the person speak to senior leaders who can share their love and passion for your company and describe the value they hope to build with the new colleague. Pay can be important but research shows that what truly motivates knowledge workers is a high level of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In these trying times, flexible work arrangements will no doubt continue to be key, as will the chance to keep on learning and growing while working to build something larger than ourselves.

Don’t ignore the sourcing, retaining, and development of in-house talent.

This is also the time to carefully review your existing key players, stay closer to them than ever, assess their skills and knowledge in light of the revised outlook for you sector and company, and help them move from potential to success with targeted development plans including the right type of stretch assignments, which often arise from crises. During the 2001 economic collapse in Argentina, in which annualized GDP fell by 30% coupled with a 300% currency devaluation, I was contacted by an American bank operating in the country. It had lost more money there in a few weeks than it had made in cumulative profits over the previous century. And yet, at that point its leaders asked me to set up a retention plan for its top executives in Argentina. Their reasoning? Because of the bank’s situation, competitors would be targeting their talent; however, those were the very people they still needed to recover some those monumental losses.

This pandemic has created unprecedented trauma around the world. The economic fallout will be equally painful for many. It can be tempting to focus on the short term of crisis management. But when we emerge from this unfolding tragedy, it will be the long-term thinkers who not only survive but thrive. If your organization is well-capitalized and visionary enough to hire for lasting greatness, now is the time.

Source: Harvard Business Review

Keep Your People Learning When You Go Virtual

by Annie Peshkam and Gianpiero Petriglieri

Over the past five years, we have been taking our work online deliberately and at a steady pace. At INSEAD, the business school where we work, we’ve been expanding virtual meetings, ramping up virtual classes and coaching, and introducing digital tools to enhance face-to-face work. Then, in the past few weeks, everything else moved online, too. As in many organizations, the transition happened almost overnight in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that has disrupted everyone’s private as well as working lives.

In such conditions, organizations and leaders might be forgiven for going into survival mode and putting learning aside. Companies do that all the time: They pause major learning initiatives, such as training courses, and minor ones, such as process checks after team meetings. They slash learning budgets and cancel mentoring sessions in a downturn. In times of upheaval, anxiety runs high and the instinct to preserve the world as we know it takes over. Leaders put aside their intent to include and develop, and revert to command and control. “Forget learning!” the thinking goes. We can’t afford it when we need to secure operations and get the basics done.”

This is dangerous. Like all major crises, and perhaps more than most, the COVID-19 pandemic is bound to leave behind lasting changes in the way work and business take place. Learning will be the foundation of our survival, then, for both organizations and the individuals who make them up. As the world shifts to online work and businesses struggle to reinvent themselves, organizations need to learn what kinds of new products and services will appeal to their consumers and learn how to create them. Leaders must learn how to keep a distributed workforce focused, energized, and attuned to customers’ changing needs.

Whether you are a CEO, senior manager, or junior professional, if you neglect learning, you stop adapting and forego leading.

What makes prioritizing learning difficult now is a challenge facing both business leaders or business teachers: learning online is a lot more complicated than setting up a Zoom account and continuing business as usual. We’ve observed two instinctive reactions that can hold both groups back during this transition: first, becoming fixated on the mechanics rather than on the purpose of learning, and second, focusing on content alone when — even more importantly — we all need to learn how to be with, and relate to, each other in this new world.

For us and for the teachers we work with daily, the swift transition to virtual work has made it difficult to focus on learning — our own, our colleagues’, and our students’ — as the novelty of online platforms and the concern with sustaining performance take over. On top of that, we’re seeing business leaders hastily set up virtual platforms and then treat them as another tool to keep the old work going, rather than as a space to learn about new ways of working.

Now, more than ever, leaders and teachers alike should think critically about what each learning initiative aims to do. Peter Hope, a vice president and head of the Leadership Academy at Schneider Electric, a global energy company, has been practicing social distancing in Hong Kong since January while leading a global team remotely. He says that in transitioning to such a context, leaders tend to obsess about the ideas they want to communicate and which platforms can best accomplish that, confusing communication for empowerment. That is ultimately what learning is meant to accomplish, and he is adamant that it can be done on line. “We can use digital spaces to learn together,” he urges, “not just to tell each other what to do. This is the time to focus on learning, because everything is in flux.” If leaders can’t figure out how to do it, he says, “their business will suffer for it.”

Well over a half of the learning initiatives that Hope oversees are moving forward as planned, online. But that wouldn’t be easy, he admits, if the shift had not already been well under way at his company. “[Companies] that have not been preparing for digital learning, will find it harder in a crisis.” Here’s one reason: Working to build a bridge between the promise and practice of digital learning, we have observed that a move to virtual work provokes anxiety, and, as a reaction, the temptation for all involved is to embrace a simple, narrow view of learning as just the efficient transmission of knowledge through digital tools. That’s all the more true in a time of crisis, when anxiety is much stronger.

But learning is seldom just a transaction between an expert and a novice. It is a relationship that frees up thinking and fosters growth. In the midst of turmoil, leaders — and teachers — must discern what kind of learning is most valuable in order to work through and get past that crisis, and integrate different kinds of learning to lead the business and its people through it.

To do this effectively, leaders and teachers have to understand how learning actually works. A vast body of research has pointed out that there are two broad ways in which we learn, both at work and everywhere else. The first is cognitive. We absorb, processes, and use information to complete our tasks. Cognitive learning has us focusing on information and skills. We might get that factual information from a class, an article we read, or a colleague teaching us a new procedure. We might impart it by conscientiously preparing a slide deck and presenting it. Too often, when people think about learning remotely, they’re only thinking about how to facilitate cognitive learning.

The second way we learn is socio-emotional. We learn how we — and others — feel and think about the new situation we are in, and how to manage those thoughts and feelings. This type of learning has us focusing on people and requires that we inquire about our own and others’ experiences. Just as cognitive learning teaches us how to manage the natural world, socio-emotional learning helps us manage the social world. “Trying to sell fridges to Eskimos” is a classic metaphor of how moot your sales tools can be if you don’t learn about people first.

While we’re focused on getting the cognitive learning right, it’s easy to forget about the socio-emotional learning — and that’s where really need to be focusing now as we adapt to radically different circumstances. We might foster socio-emotional learning, for example, by asking each member of our remote team to share their current experience when opening a call, and then facilitating a conversation about what people need from each other to reach shifting goals in novel ways.

Our colleagues who moved their classes online a few weeks ago have had to walk a tightrope between addressing everyone’s disorientation and getting on with their curriculum. Putting socio-emotional learning before the cognitive work helped them acknowledge reality and set the frame for learning. One colleague opened the class with a short meditation. Another invited students to share what it felt like connecting remotely in a document that everyone could see like a live whiteboard. Both told us that those moments made them — and their students — renew their commitment to each other and move on with lively classes. Surveyed afterwards (as it is easy to do with digital tools), their students said that those were the most useful moments of the daily class. This kind of learning isn’t prepared and imparted — a leader facilitates it, but it’s built together.

The combination of these two types of learning makes us competent and keeps us human. Their separation makes us clueless, paranoid, or both. Take the manager who fails to implement a sound plan because they worked through the logistics but did not stop to learn about how people felt about it, or the team that clings to cherished beliefs and ignores new information as a result. These neglects of socio-emotional learning are particularly dangerous in a crisis. Socio-emotional distress, like loneliness or anxiety, can erode our cognitive capacity. That is why leaders and teachers must put first the concerns that — in our career development, and in our session plans — too often still come last.

Most teachers start their career focusing on cognitive learning, getting the content under control. Then they slowly expand their capacity to facilitate socio-emotional learning, hosting spaces where people are freed up to think rather than get filled up with facts. Once they get there, they find themselves more attuned to what their students actually need. Most business leaders are much the same. Executive positions are often filled by those who are lauded for having technical knowledge first; only then are they invited to expand their people management skills. That trajectory often leads both teachers and leaders to fall back (hard) on knowledge and expertise in a crisis, precisely when their ability to focus on people and emotions is what is needed most.

As we noted earlier, we have observed a widespread assumption — a prejudice if you like — that only cognitive learning is possible online. The quicker we counter that prejudice and keep our focus on socio-emotional learning online — in classrooms and in professional settings — the better. Otherwise learning and leading will be diminished and dehumanized just when we need both competence and humanity more than ever. Even crises that appear to require the mastery of new information and implementation of new technology usually require that we hold on to our wits and to each other in order to do that work.

In a crisis, providing reassurance and sustaining performance tend to be leaders’ priorities — and teachers’ too. In those urgent moments, we assume that we must “keep it together” when everything is falling apart. We want to project expertise and avoid incompetence. We do all that, often, because we care. We want to help by keeping things under control. When, really, we are novices like everyone else because no one has been through this crisis before.

A focus on socio-emotional learning allows us to move away from the burden of delivering a product — or not letting students down or keeping a process on track — to the practice of a shared and holistic learning process. That is the kind of learning that lets us process crises and bring about change. It keeps work human and continues the learning we care most about when we are in each other’s physical presence: transforming our businesses and ourselves.

Cultivating a learning culture is not just a catch phrase or a luxury in these times. It is a way to protect your organization and its people. Courage matters as much as competence when, as we are all doing now, we have to take work virtual and we need to keep it human.

Source: HBR


How to Elevate Your Presence in a Virtual Meeting

by Joel Schwartzberg

Even before the COVID-19 crisis started, 5.3% of Americans — more than 8.2 million people — worked from home, according to a 2018 U.S. Census report. And with the outbreak turning more office workers into work-from-home employees, video conferences are becoming more routine for a wide range of business purposes, from staff meetings to brainstorming sessions to major announcements.

But communication tactics that work well among colleagues in a conference room may not translate seamlessly to Brady-Bunch-style quadrants on a computer screen. Organizational behavior professor Andy Molinsky recommends seeing virtual meetings as “an entirely different context, not simply an in-person meeting or a class on a screen.”

Elevating both your point and your presence in a Zoom, Skype, or similar virtual meeting, requires not only engaging in video conference-friendly tactics but also disabusing yourself of potentially detrimental misconceptions about the medium.

To help keep your impact actual when your presence is virtual, consider these six recommendations:

1. Focus on your camera, not your colleagues

Every presentation coach will tell you that direct eye contact is a vital way to reinforce your point. In a video conference, this means looking into the video camera, not at the smiling faces of Marcia, Greg, Cindy, Peter, Jan, and Bobby. Speaking into a cold black circle will not feel natural or comfortable — as humans, we’re trained to look at the people we’re talking to — but know that entertainers and politicians have been doing it for decades.

It’s challenging to focus on your camera for an entire meeting — especially while others are talking — but know that you increase the impact of your points when you look deep into the dot.

Practice looking into your camera during video conferences when you speak, even for brief moments. The more you use it, the more comfortable you’ll become with it.

2. Maintain a strong voice

I always counsel my students and clients to use a louder-than-usual voice because, in addition to being audible, strong voices convey authority, credibility, and confidence. This concept is just as true in virtual conferences as it is in actual ones. So even though you’re using an external or internal microphone and thus may be tempted to speak at a conversational volume, maintain a strong, clear voice as if you’re in a large conference room.

Using a loud voice will also keep you from mumbling and from speaking too quickly due to the amount of breath required.

3. Frame yourself wisely

Proximity plays a big part in how audiences perceive you as a communicator. The farther away or more obscured you appear, the less engaging you will be. In a video conference, your head and the top of your shoulders should dominate the screen.

If your head is cut off at the top or bottom, you’re too close. If your entire torso is in view, you’re too far away. If only half of your head is in sight, please adjust the camera.

Also be mindful of your background. Cluttered rooms make communicators seem disorganized. Distracting elements will pull attention away from you. Find an environment where the background is simple, reflecting your professionalism.

Preparation is critical, so take time before the meeting to pick your location and put your head fully in frame to ensure you’re putting your best face forward.

4. Be present and mindful

In a conventional meeting, participants are typically very mindful of their presence. But in a video conference where you’re muted (and maybe in your pajama pants), it’s easy to forget you’re still being watched. You may be tempted to check your email or attend to other work, but multi-tasking is perilous because you don’t want to be caught unprepared if asked a sudden question.

Even if you don’t need to be fully engaged in the meeting, your professional reputation can suffer if it even looks like you’re not paying attention. So close those other windows, turn your phone upside down, and remember that you’re always “on camera.”

Because you’re less aware of social cues in a virtual meeting, it’s also important to be mindful of how long and how often you speak, if you interrupt other people, and if you make a comment that might offend someone present but out of sight. My advice: Don’t consider yourself “at home.” Consider yourself “at work.” Your behavior may follow.

5. Don’t become your own distraction

In a live meeting, you never have to worry about talking while muted, annoying ambient noise, or the interference of pets and children. But these are all common pitfalls of virtual meetings, and they can quickly sabotage your point. Your job is to make sure you’re remembered for what you did right, not what went wrong, so be mindful of the power you have over both your virtual and physical environments.

Start by training yourself to stay on mute whenever you’re not speaking and unmuting yourself only when you do speak. Staying on mute shuts out sudden noises as well as routine noises you may not be aware of, like the ticking of a wall clock, the clickety-clack of your typing, or even your own breathing. Unmuting yourself obviously enables you to speak, but — perhaps more importantly — saves you from being on the receiving end of the embarrassing colleague chorus, “You’re on mute!”

Make sure to turn off your camera when you’re doing something visually distracting as well, such as moving to another room or eating. (Drinking is not very distracting, but chewing is another story).

Finally, if boisterous children (or pets) want to participate in your call, your colleagues will probably laugh or relate, so don’t be worried about or embarrassed by spontaneous distractions. However, if you’re tasked with giving a major presentation, try to have someone supervise them in another room, far from the temptation of your presence, or at least create an engrossing activity for them. Parenting and presenting cannot happen simultaneously, and truly important messages require not only your colleagues’ full attention, but yours as well.

6. Use the chat window as your partner

Consider the chat window as not just a discussion platform, but a presentational appendage. When you refer to an article or shared document, link to it in the chat. If you run the meeting, put a link to the agenda in the chat. When others are speaking, respond with support or questions in the chat. The chat window is a unique opportunity in virtual meetings to elevate your presence, add dimensions to your ideas, and demonstrate that you’re fully present.

Whether you’ve been participating in virtual meetings for years or just started this month, it’s important to realize that a video conference isn’t just a conference over video — it’s an entirely new interactive experience, which requires adapting your perspective, habits, and tactics to make it work effectively for you.

Source: HBR