Performance Leadership During COVID

Even under the best of circumstances, most leaders aspire to engage their staff. If you are a performance-based leader, this is something you consistently seek, and during this new time of uncertainty, anxiety, disconnectedness, and turbulence, engagement is even more important.

Gallup has surveyed and reported on engagement for decades, still currently reporting that in 2018, engagement sits at 34%, the highest it has ever been. In academia more dissertations are written about employee engagement than any other topic in the world of workplace performance.

First, let us dig into the basics. What is engagement? The term is tossed about so often, and many have a general, if not explicit, understanding of the concept, but for the sake of having a common foundation from which to begin, let us quickly review it.

Employee engagement is a workplace resulting in the right conditions for members of an organization to give of their best each day, committed to their organization’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organizational success, with an enhanced sense of their own well-being. Engagement is a mix of culture, leadership, resources, equity, values, and people.

Engagement is based on the ideals, values, and requirements of the current workforce, which like everything in our society, will progress over the years. For example:

For a quick refresher, let us also quickly define performance leadership—not to be confused with performance management as it is used in the practice of talent management and performance reviews.

Performance Leadership is a systematic, results oriented approach to management and leadership for high performing organizations, teams, and individuals. What does that mean? The goal is the completion of objectives, not the creation of workplace behavioral standards. As I like to refer to it: Performance leadership is about empowering an individual to work in their best environment, with access to the proper tools and resources, to achieve organizational goals. It is not about “butts in seats.”

One of the most troubling trends that have been present in leadership during quarantine is the complete unpreparedness for remote work and abject mistrust of personnel.

In a global economy and changing work norms, many organizations are already working towards a remote or global workplace. This has been driven by industry, and of course, there are positions where remote work is just not possible.

In places where remote work is possible, organizations should already make this available. Changing generational needs require a flexible workplace, and that often means providing a different physical environment. Generational progression aside, every organization should have preparations in place to provide an appropriate environment for a person with ability requirements. COVID brings drastic revelations of disparity to light, one of which is inequity in managing an entire facet of the workforce.

For those who can work from home, but have not worked remotely previously, should easily transition into this new environment, if the organization has the technology to do so. For the interest of this paper, let us assume that leadership has already provided a mobile workstation (laptop, tablet, cloud computing, etc.). And why wouldn’t they? Most staff attend meetings, attend conferences, or participate in organizational committees. If your staff does none of those things, I suggest you review your leadership style immediately.

If your leadership strategy is to make sure someone is present 8am – 5pm every single day, when their position is not forward facing (face to face, customer service, working in human services/education), your leadership style is potentially antiquated. In every position, the overall goal should be the objectives of the department, unit, and/or organization. If their position is not forward facing and you believe having butts in seats enables the accomplishment of those goals, you are wrong. The question you should be asking is whether it is a business need or personal preference. If you prefer to have someone there because you require face to face interaction, that is not a business need. If the rise in virtual assistants is any indication, even that position can be done at a distance.

This is where you tell me that I am wrong and that hallway conversations are necessary. I get it. I love to bounce ideas off my colleagues. I love to see reactions during conversations. I love to go to lunch. In all of this, there is one common denominator. “I”. Hallway meetings can be quick Slack or Teams conversations. Reactions can be gauged through Zoom, GoToMeeting, Duo, FaceTime, Meets… you see where this is going. If COVID is teaching us anything, it is that we CAN adapt.

The other most concerning part of the “butts in seats” mentality is that it is seated in mistrust. The idea that the watchful eye will keep personnel from wasting time is a misconception. The (Meyer, Becker, & Vandenberghe, 2004) has been done, and employees who are going to goof off will find ways to do so… even if you’re in the room. If the concern is wasted productivity, then the next avenue is to determine how well your staff is engaged.

Engagement and performance leadership are reciprocal workplace strategies. If we refer to the definitions, the relationship is obvious.

The unfortunate side effect of the “butts in seats” mentality is the micromanaged employee. This carried over easily into the quarantined environment, in which employees are now tasked with recording every moment of every day to prove they are working. While structure and accountability are important, the overall implication of mistrust only breeds a less productive and unhappy work environment. Imagine the anxiety around a pandemic, supporting your loved ones, taking care of children, and worrying about finances, only exacerbated by an unforgiving work environment.

Breaking down the arguments:

My employee will not do their job unless I am there to observe their performance. My staff will not understand the objectives unless we discuss them in person. My staff will not correctly complete tasks unless I am present and available to guide them.

If that is the case, there is a problem with leadership, engagement, or your hiring process. If your default response is to blame the employee, this is an opportunity to check your biases, your emotional intelligence, and the need for control.


Cook, J., & Wall, T. D. (1980). New work attitude measures of trust, organizational commitment and personal need non-fulfilment. Journal of occupational psychology, 53(1), 39-52. Retrieved 5 5, 2020, from classes/survey/articles/psyclimate/noted/org comm scale.pdf
Kirkman, B. L., & Shapiro, D. L. (2001). The Impact of Cultural Values on Job Satisfaction and Organizational Commitment in Self-Managing Work Teams: The Mediating Role of Employee Resistance. Academy of Management Journal, 44(3), 557-569. Retrieved 5 5, 2020, from
Lok, P., & Crawford, J. (1999). The relationship between commitment and organizational culture, subculture, leadership style and job satisfaction in organizational change and development. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 20(7), 365-374. Retrieved 5 5, 2020, from
Meyer, J. P., Becker, T., & Vandenberghe, C. (2004). Employee Commitment and Motivation: A Conceptual Analysis and Integrative Model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(6), 991-1007. Retrieved 5 5, 2020, from
O’Neill, J. W., Harrison, M. M., Cleveland, J., Almeida, D. M., Stawski, R. S., & Crouter, A. C. (2009). Work–family climate, organizational commitment, and turnover: Multilevel contagion effects of leaders. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74(1), 18-29. Retrieved 5 5, 2020, from

Published by Melissa A. Walker, Ph.D.

Training and Development Network believes there is always a positive way to engage, develop, and retain your employees; create a supportive environment for diversity, equity, and inclusion; assess opportunities to build on current knowledge or skills; and facilitate change management for any organization. We believe in engaging, actionable programs that enable your staff and leadership to immediately implement tools for change and growth. TAD offers a variety services for both the individual and the organization. We are here help you navigate career challenges, or achieve your organizational or event goals. Contact us to start your proactive journey today.

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