5 ways managers can lead their teams through crises

January 8, 2021 - 9 min read

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5 actions to take

Put on your own mask first

Resources for managers to share with their teams

We're living in challenging times. Now is the time for managers to proactively support their teams. These pragmatic tips can help.

A week into this new year and we are once again reminded of how much our businesses and personal lives can be buffeted by external forces. Many are still processing this new shock. No one knows what all the implications will be. 

It reminds us of how difficult it is to predict the needs of our employees and leaders. 

It should also remind us that our employees, colleagues, and leaders are human first. 

Managers are in a tough position: business hasn’t stopped, customers still need to be served, decisions still need to be made. You still need your team to work together, to keep operations running, and to continue to push ahead with great ideas. Yet, your people are distracted, uncertain, and potentially deeply divided. So are you.

Business-as-usual, much less new ideas, and great execution, sounds pretty hard. 

Managers — this is an opportunity to show care for your teams. This is a time to proactively reach out and support your people. This is a time to lead. 

It isn’t easy, but leading through what feels like never-ending uncertainty is part of the leadership you already do. Tapping into people’s sense of meaning in their work, reinforcing belonging, and reminding them of their resilience can still help. We’ve pulled together some tips to help you lead productively through the next few weeks.

5 actions to take

  1. Reach out with support

    You don’t have to know your company’s messaging or official position to connect with your team. Call a short team meeting or send a brief message. Acknowledge the difficulty of the moment and that many people might be feeling scared, confused, or angry, and that it’s okay to have those emotions.

    Let them know that you want them to take care of themselves and are available to talk with anyone one-on-one about specific concerns or needs. Point them toward any company-provided mental health support or wellbeing programs and if possible, make space for them to take time off if necessary. Encourage people to pay attention to their need for rest, nutrition, exercise, and social connection and to limit their time on the news and social media.

  2. Reaffirm belonging and shared values 

    Think about positive steps you can take to reinforce commonality and your company's values. Use meetings and other communications to reaffirm values like mutual respect, quality, customer, and care. Many companies voiced their support for the democratic process during the election and this can continue to frame your company’s position.

    As a manager, your words, actions, and attitude set the tone for whether diversity, equity, and inclusion are truly valued. Be clear on what behaviors won’t be accepted, such as jeopardizing safety or creating hostile work environments. 

  3. Be prepared for difficult conversations 

    The good thing about so many people being remote is that there is less chance of overhearing or being sucked into someone else’s rhetoric. The downside: these discussions may still be taking place over messaging, social media, and other communication channels. In those channels, we lack cues to tone, intent, or how the message is being received.

    Depersonalization in virtual communication can also lead to more extreme positions and interpretations than if people were standing around a real water cooler.  

    Stay alert to the endless potential for misunderstandings, disengagement, and loss of perspective in a remote world. If you find yourself having a strong reaction or unleashing expletives at an email, assume positive intent, get curious, and schedule some time to connect in a 1:1.

    Similarly, take this approach if a colleague becomes uncharacteristically inflexible. We're all under a lot of pressure in different ways, so an offhand comment could reflect a need for support—for them or for you.

  4. Focus on shared meaning 

    Just as our coaches advise us to manage our own anxiety by focusing on what we can control, you can help your team find islands of clarity by refocusing them on what they can control -- the way they show up on a call, craftsmanship around a particular project, or their contribution to serving a customer.

    As much as this time demands flexibility and time for some employees, many also find some relief in the ordinariness of work moving forward. It may also be a good time to explicitly reconnect to the organization or team’s purpose and contribution to customers or the betterment of some part of the world. As a manager, you can help your employees remember their shared meaning by talking about how and where you still find meaning, purpose, and inspiration in the work.  

  5. Let people feel heard 

    Create space, ideally smaller team and 1:1 settings, for people to express what they are feeling. As one of our coaches pointed out last week, there are members who feel like their companies have a dominant political mindset in their team or affinity group that they are uncomfortable pushing against. When identity and values feel threatened, the zone of psychological safety feels even smaller.

    Frame these discussions around the larger issues disrupting everyone’s lives — remote work and the ongoing strain of the pandemic and polarization to build empathy and self-compassion. Be clear about ground rules for mutual respect and safety. Today’s leaders need to promote environments where differences are respected, efforts are recognized, and all employees can contribute.

Put on your own mask first

Finally, take care of yourself. As a manager, you can set the tone for team resilience by navigating adversity effectively. The stew of thoughts and feelings can lead to distraction, lack of focus, and irritability as well as poor sleep and unhealthy eating and drinking habits. Manage the physical outcomes of your own internal discord and encourage your people to do the same. It's generally easier to react with empathy, curiosity, and patience when we aren't in the grip of flight-or-flight reactions. Simple deep breathing and anchoring exercises can slow heart rate and help manage the most destabilizing aspects of your reactions. 

The next few weeks might not hit all of your goals. Be flexible and continue to communicate clearly and compassionately with your team. Think about what outcomes for your team are most important to you and the company. While it is challenging to keep moving forward amid uncertainty, if you focus on caring for each other you can emerge more cohesive and more strongly committed. 

Published January 8, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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