You are leading through unprecedented times. In the health risks and economic uncertainties of the COVID-19 crisis, whether your team is in lockdown or on the frontline, your skill, impact and resilience as a leader have never been more important. No leaders have been in this situation before. Forging the path ahead as you walk it has become thornier in that both your gut instincts and many traditional management views have been made redundant or even positively dangerous by the current crisis.

 What’s instinctive when facing uncertainty  What’s needed in a crisis 1
 Waiting for additional information  Acting with urgency
 Downplaying the threat and withholding bad news  Communicating with transparency
 Doubling down to explain your actions more clearly  Taking responsibility and focusing on solving problems
 Staying the course  Engaging in constant updating

 

The opportunity, however, is for you to take an ACTIVE leadership role and build conditions for your team to be strengths-focused, resilient, engaged, connected and purpose-driven.

E – Start with empathy

Start somewhere unexpected – with EMPATHY – the E of Active. Although your instinct as an effective founder may be to take action and focus on outcomes, counterintuitively, this is the time to show empathy to your team and focus on people. This is a humanitarian crisis and we all need to feel a deepened sense of care. Humans are a social species and need interpersonal connection for our psychological and physical health. Every team member will have a different situation and be experiencing different levels of resilience and coping.

  • Spend time connecting with your team regularly (ideally every day) and find out how they are, what is happening in their wider lives, how they are feeling and coping will make them feel seen as human beings and valued as employees.
  • Share how you are feeling too, along with your plans to use these feelings to spur constructive action. Saying ‘I am also worried. Here is what I am doing about it; and what I need you to do’ will build confidence and create a sense of authentic dialogue. It is likely to create a sense of trust and psychological safety (more of this later).
  • Aside from all your regular meetings, get your team together (virtually or in-person if you are on the frontlines) for a coffee, have a casual meal or get together. You’ll find this both fun and useful. Feeling that we’re not alone in this is a key practise for you and your team.

 

Next, create Alignment

Create ALIGNMENT in the team as a next step. Make sure everyone is on the same page, has the same expectations and is clear on their role. Keep things simple. Delegate clearly. Allocate tasks based on strengths. Be clear on accountability. Daily team huddles at a set time provide a structured way of connecting and aligning. Prioritising and keeping focused on the most important tasks are useful anchors and promote clarity in a confusing time. Check back that your team is hearing what you think you’re saying. (More about communicating next). Focus on what you can control – rather than ruminate on what you can’t. This will help keep you and your team more grounded and more goal-focused. Make a list of everything that is worrying or concerning you and your team, then identifying what is in your control and what is not.  Give yourselves and your teams a time-based ‘worry window’ (say twenty minutes a day) to explore the things out of your control. Pick one key action for everything in your control as a team. This will help everyone regain a sense of your own autonomy.

 

Communicate, communicate, communicate

COMMUNICATION is an important – if not the most important – part of a leader’s role in leading their team through a crisis. Give your team a clear view of the path ahead and what to expect – share with them what is happening and how it will be actioned. Explain how this affects them, and what new behaviours you need from them.  Be clear on what is changing and what isn’t – like your ambition and your values. This is an antidote to the uncertainty they’re probably experiencing.

  • Use face-to-face communication as much as possible, even if this is virtual. While email and telephonic channels are practical and useful. Your team will value your face-to-face communication. This sometimes takes courage – especially if the going is tough.
  • Be clear and consistent. Use simple language and no more than three messages at a time. You’ll find people will need to hear messages often and over again, as they are making sense of their own emotions and gaining clarity. 2
  • Communicate continually. Keep your team informed through regular, frequent interactions and keep them updated every step of the way.
  • Make sure that your communication is a two-way process. Listen as much as you talk; ask for feedback and input. Don’t get defensive or focus on being right. Focus on understanding your team’s perspective more deeply. Include facts and feelings in your dialogues with the team.
  • You won’t have all the answers, focus on what you do know and how you can get more information. Be honest if you don’t know and say so; this will build trust and highlight your commitment to open and transparent communication.

 

Trust

Building TRUST in your team and being trusted as a leader as vital in leading in crisis. Uncertain times are often filled with unruly emotions – a sense of loss, anger and threat – and thinking that is cautious and sceptical. Behaviour in your team may be paralysed and resistant. As a leader, you need to ask your team to step forward into the unknown. This takes trust. When the going gets tough and it’s hard to see a way forward in the chaos – you are asking your team to keep going and believe that there is opportunity ahead.

  • Building trust needs clarity on what’s expected and what part everyone plays.
  • It requires reliability. It needs you to do what you say you’re going to do, to be dependable and for you to ‘walk your talk’.
  • It needs you to be credible. It needs you to know your people and for them to believe that you have their best interests at heart. It is created in small moments, every day; rather than once-off, grand gestures.

Linked with trust is the idea of creating ‘psychological safety; in your team. Amy Edmondson at Harvard describes psychological safety as ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.’ 3

As a leader you can build psychological safety in key ways.

  1. Lead by example – ask for upward feedback, acknowledge your mistakes, be open to opinions that differ from your own, be approachable and encourage your team to ask questions
  2. Encourage active listening and encourage people to share more by asking questions, actively ask for input and opinions from team members who are quiet
  • Create groundrules – These could include things like do not interrupt each other, all ideas are accepted equally and never judged, never place blame and out- of- the- box suggestions are encouraged and listened to.

 

Involve

INVOLVE your team in defining how the change is implemented in your area as much as possible.. It will enable your team to feel ownership around the change and committed to it. Ask for feedback, ideas and input. Your team will have a unique perspective on changes that are impacting them. Actively participating in implementing changes in their areas will ensure they are clear on the part they need to play.

Three useful questions to ask your team members are:

  1. What do you want me to know?
  2. What makes you proud?
  3. What help do you need from me? 3

 

Values and vision

Your VISION and our VALUES are key guides for us amidst all the unknowns right now. The lockdown and COIVD-19 crisis will end at some point. This is the time to ensure that you’re clear on what you want for yourself, your team and your business at the end of this. Linking that to your vision and your values – both as an individual and as a business – will help you to feel anchored in the bigger picture and give this time a greater sense of meaning. It will help you and your team to elevate your perspective and allow you to focus on the possibilities and opportunities around you – to reframe the situation – rather than being stuck in a survivalist headspace.  Tapping into a deeper sense of purpose, will help your team to bring all their strengths and resourcefulness to the current uncertainty, unlocking creativity and innovation in the darkest of situations.

 

Better Together

Remember the proverb – ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’. ACTIVE leadership provides the foundation for you and your team to go far, fast and all together. No time has needed this more.

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Endnotes

  1. https://hbr.org/2020/04/what-good-leadership-looks-like-during-this-pandemic
  2. https://hbr.org/2020/04/finding-the-right-words-in-a-crisis
  3. https://hbr.org/2019/04/make-your-meetings-a-safe-space-for-honest-conversation