West Point Leadership Sciences Instructor Offers Advice on Promoting Effective, Bilateral Communication in the Age of Remote Work

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Whether it's the lack of natural small talk before or after meetings, or employees not having enough time to ask their boss clarifying questions, there's certainly much that gets lost in the transition from in-person to online work during the pandemic. Regardless of these differences, the reality is that many employees at social-impact NGOs and enterprises will continue working remotely for the foreseeable future. For this interview, I wanted to learn from someone with expertise in behavioral sciences about how pandemic-era leaders can be more genuine and resilient. In turn, this will help keep productivity on social-impact initiatives alive and well.

Last year, I heard Major Jordan Terry, an Instructor of Leadership & Management at West Point, speak about the skills that people from all walks of life can use to communicate with each other more effectively. Given that the U.S. Army is a place where rank is well-known (there are different ways to address people of different seniority), Maj. Terry's speech was especially interesting because he discussed how he promotes bilateral feedback as a leader. According to Maj. Terry, it's essential that leaders and their team members both feel comfortable offering each other constructive criticism. The thoughts Maj. Terry offers below about resilient leadership can apply to a wide range of organizations grappling with uncertainty during the pandemic.

First of all, thank you so much for your time. I've found your work in leadership sciences fascinating, and the pandemic has made effective leadership even more important than before. What have you been working on lately at West Point's Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership?

I’ve been conducting a research study recently focused on understanding how cadets select mentors.  Specifically, we are interested in how cadets of different demographic backgrounds select mentors with demographic traits.  Ultimately, we’re trying to provide recommendations for how we can develop more inclusive mentorship practices and how we can foster more meaningful developmental relationships.

You've had quite the career in the Army over this past decade –– from managing aviation operations in the famed 10th Mountain Division to commanding a staff of over 130 in the Alpha Company of the 1-11th. Which lessons from all this experience do you emphasize the most for your students at West Point, and why?

The most important lessons I teach the cadets are Character and Resilience. We must have young leaders who have the character to know and do what is right.  We must have leaders whose decisions are grounded in values, rather than being susceptible to peer pressure or taking the easy road. Character is the most important aspect of a cadet’s developmental journey here, and I try to present examples from my service in which I was presented a moral dilemma or an opportunity to take a short cut. I try to describe the adversity in my career –– in combat, in training, in balancing service and my family –– to illuminate the skills and attitudes that help keep us afloat when life feels like it’s pulling us under. I find that I talk about my mistakes as a leader and how I’ve recovered from those mistakes more than I talk about my successes. The Army can train Soldiers to do amazing things – character and resilience are less trainable, and that’s why we invest so much in those competencies here at West Point.

While the pandemic has affected all organizations in some way, it has been especially challenging for NGOs and young startups where uncertainty is often inherent. Would you have any advice on how to navigate volatility when one is already in a vulnerable position?

In life-and-death combat scenarios, Soldiers respond to leaders who demonstrate the three C’s: Competence, Character, and Caring – these attributes serve as a foundation for trust. Leaders must navigate volatility with competent, level-headed decision-making, even if that expertise comes from an empowered subordinate. Teammates must also trust that their leaders have the character to make the right choices in adversity.  At West Point, we define character as the set of personal traits that one consistently falls back on to understand and do what is right to make positive impacts on others and the world around us. Character is not instantaneous – leaders must consistently demonstrate character to build trust for those tough moments when subordinates will demand a trusted leader. Finally, leaders must care.  Caring goes beyond simply acts of kindness. Leaders who care train their teams for tough times.  Leaders who care provide honest, candid feedback to enable development.  Leaders who care communicate with transparency, even if the news isn’t always positive. In moments of uncertainty, leaders must serve as the steady backbone of an organization.  Competence, character, and caring enable leaders to be that backbone.

From my conversations so far with entrepreneurs and NGO officials during the pandemic, a common theme has emerged that all-hands-on-deck leadership is needed to keep operating smoothly. Based on your own experience commanding teams that were often spread out geographically, do you have any ideas for how leaders can foster a sense of community when their teams aren't physically together?

Effective leaders are present in their organizations. Presence enables teammates to better identify with a leader, but teammates should also identify with the greater organization community.  As General (Retired) Martin Dempsey writes in his book Radical Inclusion, leaders are sense-makers.  Leaders can help people make sense of their efforts by describing how each teammate’s contributions (no matter how seemingly minor) build towards the organization’s overall objective. To integrate physically separate or distant teammates, leaders can consistently describe how teammates or subunits of the organization contribute to the greater mission or purpose. Taking time to communicate how each element of the organization contributes to the overall effort can help team members see bonds and connections which might be tough to see on a daily basis.  

Another follow-up: for all-hands-on-deck leadership to work, it seems like communication between leaders and their team members needs to be bilateral. In other words, leaders need to be as comfortable receiving constructive criticism as they are giving it. What can an effective leader and their teammates do to promote a culture of open communication and mutual understanding in the workplace?

One of a leader’s most powerful tools is genuine humility. Humility is acknowledging when one doesn’t know something. Humility is taking responsibility for a mistake. Humility is having the discipline to challenge one’s own biases and experiences to see a person or situation accurately.  Humble leaders communicate an openness to their teammates’ input and demonstrate a willingness to listen. Culture starts with leadership and humble leaders can make great strides toward a culture of open dialogue within the team.

Over the past decade, ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) has become a common term in the business world. Let's say we have a leader who needs to get the buy-in of his reluctant teammates for an initiative to promote more pay transparency. How can he accomplish this?

In this scenario, a leader must empathize with his or her followers to understand their interests and perspectives. The leader should communicate to create a shared understanding of the purpose and endstate of the initiative, then engage with his or her teammates on an individual level to address any remaining apprehension. We teach a model of Organizational Justice in which people’s perception of fair treatment depends above all on how they are treated in the decision-making process.  This leader should first focus on fostering trust with the team and buy-in will follow.

Through this interview, Maj. Terry highlighted key points that we can all adopt –– whether we're leaders or team members in an organization –– to maintain a culture of openness and cooperation while working remotely. Although Maj. Terry applies this advice mainly in educational and military settings, it is just as relevant to vulnerable social-impact organizations working to keep doing good in the midst of a pandemic. Whether it's hosting more one-on-one meetings with colleagues to maintain an interpersonal dynamic or setting up office hours for employees to drop by with questions as they come up, effective leadership will help boost morale. Remote work presents different challenges for all of us, but Maj. Terry's ideas about bilateral leadership can help all of us meet each other in the middle.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and Major Terry, and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image from MIT Sloan Management Review

More posts by Chris Walsh.
West Point Leadership Sciences Instructor Offers Advice on Promoting Effective, Bilateral Communication in the Age of Remote Work
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