When times are tough, we tend to look to our leaders for inspiration and for reassurance. I am, of course, not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say we’re definitely in one of those times right now—not just one business, one industry, or even one country, but the whole world.
Good leaders know this, and they’ve been working proactively to support their teams as best they can. But this is all new to everyone. We’re working without a roadmap, and any guidance is sure to be appreciated—for leaders as well as their teams. Leadership is trying to provide the people working under them with the things they want and need to succeed in a new paradigm. But what is it that your employees are looking for right now?
That’s a very good question. Let’s answer it.
Empathy: we’re all in this together
I know you’ve heard this a million times already, but there’s nothing normal about what’s going on right now. COVID-19 has thrown life into a state of chaos, and it’s not simply something that can be ignored when we think about how we work.
Leadership coach Alain Hunkins calls out what we probably already know, but haven’t wanted to admit: this is a collective trauma we’re all going through, not just in our personal social groups but as a human culture. We’re wired to instinctively respond to the emotions shown by those around us, so what happens when everyone’s experiencing distress at the same time? “Like the coronavirus, emotions are highly contagious,” Hunkins says. “And negative emotions are the easiest to catch.”
Employees are looking for their leaders to help guide them through this process. But they want empathic leadership, not false stoicism. We’re all logically aware that everyone’s going through the same things, and that includes our leaders. But we don’t make decisions rationally. And we definitely don’t think with perfect rationality during a crisis.
As a leader, you know how the members of your team feel. There’s no reason to pretend like you’re not suffering—“if you try to skip past empathy and just focus on the job, you'll only make things worse,” Hunkins says. “Pandemic trauma is the elephant in the room. If you give some time and space for acknowledging it, you create the psychological safety that's needed to be able to get any other kind of work done.”
If your team knows that you’re going through everything they’re going through, they know you’re making decisions based on the same feelings and experiences they’re having. And that’s a very reassuring thought.
Flexibility: things change fast, and often
2020 isn’t going how anyone expected so far, and that part at least is not likely to change anytime soon. We’re all preparing for strange scenarios like long-term work-from-home, or even a phased opening that turns back into social distancing in the fall or winter. We kind of have to be ready for everything, and that’s unsettling.
It’s even more unsettling when leadership doesn’t recognize that fact, or refuses to treat it as a new reality. If your business is still functioning under your original 2020 business plan, you’re either very lucky, very stubborn, or you have a functioning crystal ball. You have to be ready to pivot, and then pivot again as needed when things change.
But that doesn’t simply apply to your overall strategy. It also applies to how you’re treating your employees.
A day now does not look the same as a day did last May. Working remotely brings unique challenges, whether your whole staff is remote or you’re starting to cycle groups back into the office. An empty spot on someone’s calendar from 1pm to 3pm may not be sitting there ready for you to add a last-minute Zoom meeting—it might turn into an emergency dog walk, or maybe a child needs to be cared for. In a regular office setting you can more or less assume that every moment from 9 to 5 is available for work, but when working from home, maybe that has to be 7 to 1, and then 3 to 6.
Trying to force everyone into the same template has never been a great idea, when it comes to getting the most out of your team. But when we’re all separated by distance, and each in unique personal situations, it becomes pretty much impossible. It is simply not a hill worth dying on.
Clarity: tell us what you need from us
One of the best ways to deal with that need for flexibility is to be as clear as possible about as much as possible at all times. There is, obviously, a lot of uncertainty in the world today. Work to cut down on the uncertainty your teams feel as they try to work.
As we already discussed, the different situations we all find ourselves in mean that often, we’re making work decisions on a case-by-case basis. That doesn’t just mean that my work schedule might be different from the person who used to sit next to me. It might mean that my capacity and availability shift on a day-to-day basis, and I have to make decisions about what I’m tackling and when. If leadership has properly communicated expectations and priorities, it’s a lot easier to navigate the tricky waters of one’s own shifting schedule. Without that clarity, it’s impossible to know whether you’re good to go, or you’re leaving teammates out to dry.
Set clear expectations. Make sure the people who are working under you know what the business’ priorities are, and what their individual priorities are within that plan. If things change (and they probably will), don’t keep your team in the dark about what that means for them. If people know what their objectives are and how they’re being measured, it makes it a whole lot easier to meet those goals.
Transparency: openness and regular communication
If you’ve followed the Element Three blog for any length of time, you might have expected transparency to appear on this list. It’s one of our core values, and in my personal opinion it’s a critical one not just for our own business, but for any organization. That has always been true, but in times of increased confusion and doubt, transparency only becomes more important.
Ignorance breeds fear. If your employees don’t know what’s going on within your business, they’ll only get more nervous over time. Even if the conversation you need to have is a tough one, you need to have it. Knowing precisely what your organization faces allows your team to be part of the solution, rather than just worrying about what might go wrong.
Transparency isn’t just about what’s happening now, either. Be open with your team about what’s coming next. Are you working on a plan to reopen your office? What does it look like? What do you think the rest of this year is going to look like? Are you going to try to sprint to catch up to your original 2020 goals, or pick up the pace just a bit to begin a longer process of bridging the gap? Talk to your team and keep them in the loop, so they’re ready for what’s coming when it arrives.
Optimism: what’s next?
This isn’t going to go on forever. It’s hard to see now, but somewhere there’s an end to this tunnel, and there’s a light there. We just have to get there.
The members of your team are not looking for a false dawn. Everything we just said about transparency applies—only the honest truth. But the more you can build optimism for your organization’s future, the better.
Everyone needs something to work towards, and something to look forward to. Positive thinking can actually lead to positive outcomes, and the more real positivity you can provide for your team, the more likely it is that the work will be good—and you’ll have something tangible to celebrate.
So what are you shooting for? When we all come out on the other side of this, what’s your organization’s goal? Talk to your team about it, and show them how you can—and will—get there.
Relationships, not edicts
Leadership is not a one-way street. It’s a relationship, a give-and-take between leaders and those they lead. That relationship is always important, but much more so when times are difficult. Listen to those you lead, and hear what they need from you. It might not always be easy, and it might not always be fun. But working together, we can all chart a route to success.
Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.
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