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Team dynamic changing New Zealand business

Empathy & trust re-shaping leadership & the way people work.

Greg MacDonald and Lara Prentice

There is a new workplace phenomenon taking place in New Zealand – Dr Rachel Wright calls it “teamliness” – fuelled by empathy, agility and a more human-centred approach to leadership. In the last two years, there has been much talk of the “new normal” following the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including flexi-working, working from home and the fact that businesses will never return to pre-2020 ways of working.

However, Wright – Director of Executive and Professional Development at the University of Auckland Business School – and senior colleague Philippa Collins say this new dynamic runs much deeper than that.

Philippa Collins
Philippa Collins

Collins runs the Business School’s Leadership Mindset Programme and says the way teams and organisations have adjusted to the pandemic and its aftermath has forced a big re-think on leadership. It’s also prompted a shift in the way teams work – at a whole new, empathetic and supportive level.

“It’s been the story of 2022 and isn’t just down to Covid,” says Collins, the Business School’s Manager, Executive and Professional Development, “though of course that’s played a big role”. Now, she says, we are seeing people needing time off not just for the virus but for a host of other winter illnesses – and that has promoted wellbeing and work/life balance to the fore.

There’s the employee with elderly parents who need care; the parents who have to take time off when one of their three kids gets a sniffle and has to stay home from school; the sister who had a nasty fall and needs looking after while she undergoes rehab.

Collins has been one of those people herself, juggling the demands of a busy role with her three kids aged between 2 and 9. Her team at the Business School has been regularly disrupted by absences, which might in the past have wreaked havoc on productivity and team cohesion. But she is witnessing quite the opposite. The guilt of offloading to colleagues has been washed away by a wave of empathy and trust that Collins says has created a “new normal” in workforces in New Zealand – teams looking out for each other or “teamliness”.

“Navigating the shared experience of living and working through the pandemic has prompted those in the workforce to see their colleagues as people and not just as resources,” says Collins. “In pre-Covid days, I think people were expected to leave their personal challenges at the door, put aside their own fatigue, illness or emotional wellbeing and present a professional front.

“Dialling in from our homes on a daily basis meant we tended to take more time to check in with one another on a personal level – gaining more insight and understanding of our colleagues’ non-working lives.

“It is now okay to put your hand up and say you need help. When that help is delivered, it builds a new level of trust and a real, shared and concerted purpose; organisations are trusting people to make it happen, and it is.

“It means someone like me can choose my working hours, working at night if I want to, if it means I can attend my kids’ sports day, for example. Or a colleague can acknowledge when they are not at their best and take some time out, knowing the team will step in and support.”

Wright, who heads the various professional and development programmes at the Business School, says teamliness has also changed leadership values: “Two or three years ago, we all worked in our silos and all we cared about was our KPIs. As a leader then, I would have had a very different reaction to all this. In past years, you would have been more ruthless and team members would probably have been more resentful if someone had frequent absences.

Dr Rachel Wright

“Now, however, everyone is pitching in to help; leaders can see what a difference it is making. There’s a stronger sense of team than there ever has been and it is working well – and the mindset, the way you lead a team like that, has changed too.”

Collins says just as the old 9-5 mentality has shifted, so too has the concept of effective leadership: “Teamliness creates the conditions for a more resilient, collaborative and agile style of leadership that embraces diverse perspectives, challenges the status quo, breaks down barriers and is well suited to the complex, uncertain and ever-changing world that we find ourselves in.

“While those in senior positions have an important role to play, people at all levels of the organisation can be pivotal leadership players and increasingly need to arm themselves with the right skillset and mindset to do so.”

It’s too early for research to prove that productivity has increased and companies are more agile and performing better as a result – but many expect that to be the case. Another by-product of the change has been the rise and rise of the “everywhere employee” – the staff member who, because of Covid and other reasons, has become highly cross-functional, working across different departments and at all levels within an organisation.

They have become the new, more highly prized employees in the workforce because of their enhanced understanding of their business or organization. Elements like flexibility and wellbeing are becoming increasingly important in retaining such staff members, highly attractive to competing organisations.

*The Business School Leadership Mindset Programme begins in August – a key element is that leadership is not just the domain of those in senior positions. The complexity of today’s world, coupled with the pace of change, calls for leaders who are aware, inquisitive and agile. The programme brings new perspectives and critical practices that support effective leadership.

The article is part of an NZME content partnership – view this article on the NZ Herald website


11 July 2022