If you are a leader during COVID-19, it’s likely that you and your co-workers are going through an extremely difficult time. Chances are you’re trying to balance some diametrically opposite forces: the personal stress of radical uncertainty versus the imperative of leading and inspiring others. In situations like this, stress tends to “freeze” leaders, leaving others to fend for themselves. Consider that now is the opportune time to focus on others—a set of behaviors that makes for exceptional leaders in any climate. This mindset is especially critical during times when so many feel lost. Investing in people proved a key success factor for many industry leaders through the Great Recession, and applying these principles will surely help now. Even when leaders lack a clear vision for what the future holds, opportunities abound to be a stabilizing force by focusing on others.
Take people’s needs into account: Don’t make assumptions and try to understand.
- Provide support– Considering the specific challenges that employees face during a crisis, think about what could make their lives easier. Ask them what they need the most right now—anticipate personal situations that can range from “business as usual” to a critically ill spouse. This can mean lessening workloads, allowing time for personal leave, giving contact information for online grief counseling, or potentially increasing PTO allotments.
- Show empathy – Let staff conduct their work to fit their new normal while managing the organization’s productivity expectations. This may mean working outside of normal hours. Some employees are now forced to be at home with kids and no child care. Others may be ill or may be caring for a sick loved one. For those who have more flexibility in their schedules, this can be a wonderful opportunity to spend time on longer-term projects or on professional development. Remember that in times of crisis, providing freedom to repurpose time can be even more valuable than compensation.
Humanize your interactions: Now is the time for high frequency (virtual) touch points.
- Be present– Eliminate distractions when checking in with others. In stressful times it may be tempting to check your email or look at your phone for updates. When meeting with team members, dedicate focused time to others so that they can feel how important they are to you. And whenever possible, choose the most personal form of communication as your medium of choice (in order of preference): in-person, video, phone, and as a last resort, email/text.
- Listen deeply– Even if you can’t offer a solution, ensuring that your employees feel heard and understood will help them regulate their emotions and move forward. To build even stronger emotional connections, try this simple communication technique: Make a point to ask two follow-up questions (or more, if desired) for each issue/topic they share. Examples include: What else did you experience? How was that for you? What happened next?
- Model candor – Without a strong culture of trust, people are unlikely to speak openly about their situation absent modeling by the leader. Be aware that sharing how you’re really doing and how these last few weeks have impacted you may be the key that unlocks the door to your employees’ ability to speak candidly. Transparency and authenticity build trust. This can mean saying, “I don’t really know what’s coming next for us as a business, but I will communicate with you the information I have.”
- Be truthful – Show you care, but do not overpromise. This includes avoiding statements like “There is nothing to worry about.” Giving people a sense of “we’re in this together” can give them some comfort. And if there is bad news lurking around the corner, lay the groundwork for what may come. No one likes surprises, especially during periods of high stress.
It’s easy to stop focusing on others when we are under unprecedented pressure. However, caring for people is one of the best predictors of leadership success – both in good times and bad. For additional information on communicating strategically during a crisis, check out this more in-depth piece from the FMI team, Leadership Communication During a Crisis.