By Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale | May 13, 2020

“The ultimate measure of a [human being] is not where [they] stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where [they] stand at times of challenge and controversy.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

“How do I lead a workforce that is facing challenges I’ve never seen before?”

This question surfaces markedly more often during this unprecedent pandemic which has affected our worldview, where and how most of us work, and our sense of security.

The Cook Ross ECO Model® (Emotional, Cognitive, and Ontological) posits that every interaction between individuals, regardless of their race, level, position or generation has three important components:

  • Cognitive – The what, often represented by the question asked or the answer given.
  • Emotional – The feelings, memories, and projections that surround the question or actions taken.
  • Ontological – The way our history informs our present.

The ECO Model® directs an individual to be inner focused before responding in their interactions, especially in times of fear, which may be generating more stress as your colleagues and team members work in their new workspaces throughout the pandemic and to fulfill the social distance requirements. The Cook Ross ECO Model® posits that every interaction between individuals, regardless of their race, level, position, or generation has three important components: Emotional, Cognitive, and Ontological Click To Tweet

By itself, remote and socially distant leadership presents several new challenges; from the silly, my snoring French Bulldog lying across my keyboard, to the serious challenge of an employee struggling to keep an aging parent and two furloughed teenagers safe in an already overcrowded home.

How do I lead in times when I know all of us are worried about loved ones and friends, stressed out about the economy and global food sources, and sitting in front of computers for hours at a time, wondering if we need to change out of the pajama pants we’ve been wearing for the last three days (after all no one can see us)?

Here are seven ways to be an inclusive leader during challenging, and perilous times:

1) Listen To The Words AND The Music

  • Ask questions and listen for the emotional markers in the answers – connect with individuals who are similar to and different from you. It is more challenging when team members cannot interact in familiar ways, and consequently essential to probe for emotional and content clarity.
  • Regulate and balance yourself before beginning a difficult conversation, pause for a few minutes, take a deep breath, and relax your body by stretching or moving around.
An intellectual answer to an emotional question is not satisfying to either party. Click To Tweet

2) Recognize How Privilege Impacts Teams, Decisions, And Behaviors

  • Being aware of what I have, (a quiet, beautifully decorated office space for video conferences) that others may not, (a team member is working from the kitchen table with the family breakfast mess behind him), helps me understand that others often have concerns about which I am clueless.
  • Acknowledging my power (e.g., hierarchal, resource, reference) and privilege opens my eyes to potential micro-inequities – the small indignities that mount up and over time create an exclusive and hostile workplace.
  • Boldly believe things can be better, including yourself. Read, listen, watch leadership podcasts, get a coach; now is the time for learning and developing your inclusive leadership

3) Value Diversity; The Vast Array Of Human Differences And Similarities

  • Make a conscious effort to recognize who thinks, acts, and experiences life differently from you, especially in the remote workplace. In our virtual courses, Everyday Bias and Inclusive Leadership, we define inclusion as Intentionally engaging all individuals based on respect for difference.
  • A core skill of an inclusive leader is empathy, Make a conscious effort to recognize who thinks, acts and experiences life differently from you and how those difference might affect productivity, delivery, and employee engagement.
  • An inclusive leader activates the team; maximizing the diversity by cultivating diverse viewpoints and confidently inviting new perspectives.

4) Recognize The Significance Of Brain Science

  • The brain searches for threat – physical (the dark alley), emotional (no one is safe from coronavirus), and psychological (what if my job goes away) and will often discount positives (ignoring the millions of ways people around the world are helping one another).
  • Fear makes us objectify others and operate from our biases – the stories we make up about “them”. The internet is filled with daily examples of fear based racial, political and cultural biases.[1]
The more we know about others’ truths and reality, the easier it is to see their humanity and for them to see ours. Click To Tweet

5) Accept That We See The World Not As It Is, But As We Are

  • Individuals operate from their personal and cultural ontological framework; the way our past influences our present reality. Individuals’ cultural beliefs about hierarchy may influence their willingness to challenge the leader’s ideas and solutions, despite their knowledge and skills.
  • Don’t assume that you know what customers, clients, or employees are thinking, what they’re going through or what they need. Ask them, “How can I help you during this time? What would make it easier for you to contribute to the conversation?”

6) Be A Brave, Courageous And Inclusive Leader – Insist On Inclusion

  • Incorporate feelings, beliefs, and concerns into the dialogue. Share your struggles, worries, and frustrations.
  • Consciously create inclusion; on the phone, video conferences, across different time zones, and with diverse learning styles (not everyone is comfortable brainstorming or with data dumps).
  • Be mindful of who is represented during meetings, on conference calls and in conversations when discussing ‘what’s next’. Allow for silence for those who are processors rather than extraverts (especially if you’re like me and if it comes into my brain, it comes out of my mouth).
  • Even if we disagree, it’s courageous to talk about the tough issues. Tough topics like COVID-19, transgender inclusion, immigration, generational differences, the digital divide, and sexism should be seen as ‘courageous conversations’. Courageous conversations require everyone to listen with compassion, to look for connections in their interactions with others, to be conscious of their feelings, thoughts and, especially in the areas of discomfort, to allow for dissension.
  • Whatever you’re not talking about is how the organization or the world keeps us separate. Give employees (one-on-one or in small groups) opportunities to share challenges and solutions.
  • Get tips from folks that have always been remote – sharing their knowledge makes them feel seen, heard, and valued.
  • Engage in intentional, and authentic self-awareness.

7) Have Some Fun

At Cook Ross, we have several “Vunches” (virtual lunches) with the caveat that no one can discuss work, and there is a “swear jar” for infractions. Other teams are having scavenger hunts, movie discussions, sharing pet pictures and stories, virtual dance parties, meditation sessions, and other activities to provide an, albeit short, respite from the daily stress.


[1] Coronavirus News: NYPD report shows bias crimes against Asian Americans on the rise

Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale has more than 30 years of experience leading learning-based interventions in over 48 countries across 5 continents. She provides transformative consultation to organizations and leaders across industries including finance, manufacturing, technology, education, and healthcare.