How can leaders help their team stay focused and productive during periods of high uncertainty and stress?
Work can be challenging enough during a normal work day. When you add the strain of working remotely, online home-schooling, anxiety about the health of your spouse or partner, or worry about friends and family working on the frontlines of healthcare, you have a potent mix — resulting in stress, an inability to concentrate, and a drop in productivity.
In many ways, the leadership characteristics that generally shape and motivate strong, productive teams also serve you well during periods of exceptional stress and uncertainty. Read more about developing powerful, cohesive teams. As a leader, navigating these times is a matter of emphasis, mindfulness, and focus.
1. Clearly Communicate Your Message
Any messages you wish to communicate need to be especially clear. Be authentic, honest, and concise. Importantly, you have to do your homework ahead of time and work out what your message is. Don’t make an an announcement on-the-fly. Make sure of your facts and be clear about it in your own mind. This no time to be inconsistent, ambiguous, or to casually “run things up the flag pole” to see how your team responds. For more about communication, read Arden Coaching’s “Communication: The “Secret Sauce” of Great Teams.”
2. Continue to Set Expectations
No matter what the situation, everyone on the team needs to know what is expected, whether it’s work processes or work product and deliverables. As a leader, you may need to adjust expectations — they may not be the same as they’d be under normal circumstances. For example, you may need to create shorter-term expectations. By definition, uncertainty means that things could change quickly. However, a mutual understanding of what is expected of each team member keeps the entire team more focused, moving forward, and working together toward a goal.
3. Accountability for All
Each team member, including the leader, needs to own their individual and collective effort and output. This is especially important when working with teams whose members are unaccustomed to working remotely. In addition to creating a culture of trust and honesty — essential for having open, direct conversations about accountability — connectedness is critical. Make sure you are staying up-to-date with your team and that they are staying in touch with each other. Have regular check-ins and chats. Probably more than usual. Make sure everyone is comfortable using technology, such as Slack, Basecamp, and Zoom.
4. Be Flexible and Understanding
While setting expectations and holding people accountable is vital, good leaders recognize that they need to be flexible too. Offer more leeway and accept more chaos than you might usually. Be empathetic and understanding — your team members are dealing with their own individual circumstances, from health and job security, to domestic bedlam. Yes, it’s an important meeting, but accept the reality that someone’s 4-year old could run noisily into the room at any moment. People still need to do their jobs, but allow the team’s humanity to show through, and appreciate the need for kindness and understanding.
5. Focus on Listening
Listening skills are more important than ever. Strive to hear what people are truly saying and trying to communicate. Isolation is a danger for leaders too, and you need to know what’s going on with your team. Don’t make assumptions about other people’s realities. Be open. Phone and video conferencing is imperfect, but where you can, work to pick up on tone-of-voice and body language.
Leverage your strengths too. Tap in to the characteristics that make you a good leader in the first place. Whether it’s your ability to connect and empathize with others, linking strategy to action, your reputation for integrity, or your ability to put everyone at ease with a well-timed story, highlight and make the best use of the skills and talents you possess as a leader.
Perhaps the biggest difference between leadership when things are normal and leadership in times of doubt, uncertainty, and stress is that your leadership abilities will have an exaggerated impact on your team. Circumstances are so extraordinary that everything you say and do becomes amplified. Be mindful. Be intentional. Be kind to your team — and yourself. Watch a brief video from founder and president of Arden Coaching, Maren Perry, about leading during the coronavirus.