Prior to Covid-19, there were two focusing events or crises that dramatically changed my perspective on life: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the April 16, 2007 killing of 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech. While vastly different, the Covid-19 pandemic and the upending of life as we know it since early March 2020 is the third such focusing event that I have experienced.
Focusing events force us to rethink and reset our priorities. This resetting often includes a renewed emphasis on our shared humanity that falls under the mantra or rallying cry of Stronger Together. What does this mean? I believe it is the outflow of our innate desire for community and to be part of something greater than ourselves. It is a hopeful and aspirational statement that we don’t have to be polarized by politics, religion, gender, race, and inequality—that, despite our differences, we can choose to unite around one universal principle—to love thy neighbor.
Yet, we must ask—who is our neighbor? The answer may not be as obvious as it seems. What about our colleagues, our bosses, and our direct reports? Can, and should, the rallying cry of Stronger Together be extended to the places we work and to the organizations we lead?
Amidst the chaos and uncertainty that has forced us all to rethink and reset our priorities as members of our communities, I want to challenge you with an important question:
Has this pandemic presented us with a short window of opportunity for our workplaces and organizations to also be Stronger Together?
Below, I offer four practices we can all embrace as the foundation for our workplaces and organizations to emerge Stronger Together:
- Believe the best about others, rather than assume the worst
Often, we fall prey to the fundamental attribution error and attribute the negative or frustrating behaviors of others to their intentions or personalities. Yet, we give ourselves a pass and attribute our own negative or frustrating behaviors to things that are out of our control (i.e. environmental factors). This should not be. We must give each other the benefit of the doubt and …
- When there is a difference between what we expect from others and what they do, choose to fill these gaps with trust rather than suspicion
Yes, trust is risky, but suspicion is riskier. Suspicion causes people to withhold information, to hide their weaknesses and mistakes, and to avoid seeking help. Suspicion fosters defensiveness. In addition to choosing to trust others, we should also choose to be worthy of the trust of others. In addition to owning and addressing the gaps we create, we must …
- Seek to understand before seeking to be understood
We should seek to understand one another at a deeper level. When we do this, we affirm the other person and we acknowledge their value. Grounded in a respect for others, this practice elevates our dialogue and focuses our attention on the pursuit of the truth. It replaces politics, manipulation, and winning the argument with an emphasis on finding the best answer for the organization and the people we serve. This is fueled by two important qualities that are certainly at a deficit in many organizations: humility and empathy.
With the three practices above in place, we can commit to …
- Leveraging our influence or skill set to help others—especially those below us on the organizational chart
Let’s look for ways to lend our time, resources, and expertise to others no matter where they happen to fall on the organizational chart and practice asking some important questions: “What can I do to help?” and “What is something I can do today for one that I wish I could do for everyone?”
What would happen in your workplace if more people embraced these four practices? What would happen if you embraced them? Will you join me in doing so?
My workplace exists to train the next generation of public service professionals. Public and social problems are increasingly complex, and the need for thoughtful, dedicated, and expertly trained public service professionals is great. We must emerge from this pandemic stronger and we can only do so if we are together.
Travis Bland is the Associate Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration and an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Administration. He has taught Public Management Seminar, Organizational Dynamics, Public Sector Human Resource Management, Public Service Ethics and Leadership, Nonprofit Sector Human Resource Management, and the Internship Seminar at UIS. He is currently serving as the Director of the Doctorate in Public Administration Program. He received his Ph.D. from the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech. Prior to coming to UIS, he worked with local and state social services departments, planning commissions, state and local government agencies and officials, non-profit agencies, and private industries to help coordinate and implement a welfare-to-work program and explore the feasibility of developing a regional water authority in Virginia’s New River Valley.
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 The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni
 Trust vs. Suspicion, Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast.
 Fifth habit in Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”
 Culture of Collaboration, Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast.