No one can predict right now what will happen in the next few weeks or months. That uncertainty, of course, contributes to enormous anxiety and fear in people. While many of us are doing everything we can to “flatten the curve” of the outbreak, it isn’t easy to keep soldiering on.
Some of us work with remote teams already, while others are scrambling to transition to having as many staff as possible work from home. Still others have had to lay people off, are working with skeleton staff or trying to keep essential workers as safe as possible.
During uncertain times like these, people look to leaders for guidance and hope. This is when effective leadership shines – and ineffective falters. That’s a particularly daunting reality for those of us in leadership positions. I understand how you might be feeling. Being expected to lead a team through triumph AND adversity can be terrifying.
(And even if you’re not in a formal leadership role right now, being able to communicate during times of stress and uncertainty are going to show you’re ready to be a leader.)
Here are nine steps you can take to reassure your team despite all the uncertainty:
Take a minute: You might feel the pressure to act and do something FAST FAST FAST, but pause to collect your thoughts and take a deep breath before you jump into any interaction – whether that’s writing an email, making a phone call or video teleconference or talking to a team member. (Reviewing our four practical tips for mindful leadership might be helpful right now!) Stress begets stress. If you can take a moment to become more calm and collected, your leadership will be more reassuring for your team members and colleagues.
Remember everyone reacts differently: If you regularly follow our blog then you know that we work with leaders to understand personality differences. When you’re reaching out in a time of crisis, it’s more important than ever to understand your audience and what motivates or alarms them. Think about what your team members might be worried about (which may be different than what you’re worried about), what unknowns are troubling them and what information will be encouraging to them. When you can anticipate their concerns and questions and offer reassurance and answers with empathy and compassion, your team will be more likely to hear and trust what you have to say.
Trust the experts: You don’t have to be the expert about this Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but you can refer your team members to the best and most credible sources of information. Do some research, communicate the main points in clear language and share links to national public health and local health authorities, who are all keeping their main websites updated with the latest information. (While avoiding the constant recirculating of dubious “news” sites announcing the latest atrocity OR the latest “cure!”)
Be confident (even if you don’t feel it!): We’ve spoken previously about developing your executive presence, and this is definitely a time when having a strong executive presence really matters. You’re not going to have all the answers, but you can still communicate uncertainty with confidence. While you can’t control everything, you can appear in control. Stay in touch and update your team with what you do know (“While we’re watching to see what happens, what we do know at this point is…” or, “I know this has been raised as an issue, so let me check into that and get back to everyone”). When you are responsive, available and communicate regularly, people will feel that they’re in the loop and that you are watching out for everyone on the team.
Provide some structure: Many people flounder in times of uncertainty. Having some sense of control is very comforting and reassuring, so focusing on what is being done/can be done and giving your team some action items is empowering. Take charge, but with compassion. When you communicate with them, you can talk about what you’re doing and you can recommend things for them to focus on (even if that’s just making social distancing a priority and focusing on their loved ones). Choose your words carefully to give a real sense of stability amid the chaos: “Right now we are going to take these steps to keep things going remotely” and, “I’d like you to take these steps.” If staff are working from home, give clear direction on what remains a priority, and what doesn’t.
Communicate frequently: You know how dead air on the radio or TV is seriously unsettling? Nothing is going to make people worry more right now than no communication from their leader. Send regular updates to everyone, and communicate even if you don’t have any updates. Checking in with your team members (ideally one to one, occasionally) and reminding everyone that you’re all in this together and that they matter is extremely important when people everywhere are feeling isolated and uncertain about the future.
Be human: Work concerns aside, connect with your team members by showing that you understand what they’re really worried about on the home front. Some of your team members may have partners who are out of work, so financial concerns are very real. Others will have loved ones who are vulnerable to this infection or front-line workers in essential services who are worried about infection. Some might even have immediate family or friends afflicted with COVID-19. Many will be trying to juggle new realities with children home, elder care, etc. Sharing your concerns and acknowledging some of your own anxieties on a personal level will invite others to share, which allows you to show compassionate understanding. People respond to leaders who can relate to them not only professionally, but personally.
Build your team up: It’s definitely not business as usual, but this is a time that you can build stronger relationships with your team. There are many ways you can do this (today’s technology is wonderful!). Some leaders are calling video-conference meetings so everyone who is working remotely or off work can just check in and share what’s happening for them. You can invite the parents on your team to share resources that are helping them keep children busy and entertained (and tips for how to work from home with young children!) and how to buoy the spirits of high school or college kids who are worried about their school year.
Put the social in distancing: Maybe you can challenge people to some online games or to share their top picks for movies or TV shows to watch. Look for opportunities to help each other, with recipe suggestions or where to find some toilet paper (!) or Tylenol – or sending meals to a team member who is housebound or cares for an aging parent. Encourage everyone to be present (even while they’re distancing!) and your team will come through this crisis stronger.
This all feels like uncharted territory, and, of course, for most of us, it is. Just keep communicating regularly and confidently with your team so that when they look to you for leadership and guidance, you’re reassuring them and leading them forward.
And, if YOU need someone to talk to – reach out to us. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org I’m serious – we coach leaders every single day through all sorts of issues and challenges. I too am working from home and I would be happy to try to help (this isn’t a sales pitch, I’m happy to respond to your emails free of charge!!)
How are you feeling about the uncertainty? How might your team members be feeling? What can you do differently to help your team? (Remember, differently doesn’t necessarily mean “more.”)