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Alert not alarmed: Tips for leaders during times of uncertainty

Alexandria Joy - Monday, March 16, 2020
The next few weeks and months are going to be tougher than normal for everyone, and especially for you as a leader.

It’s more important right now than ever to maintain your calm, to build resilience in your team and to create psychologically safe environments where your people feel heard, seen and supported. During a crisis, employees need effective leadership more than ever.

Perhaps, like many workplaces you have asked your people to work from home. While this may feel like a dream or potentially a nightmare, consider that it may create a lot stress and anxiety for both you and your people.

Consider how your team members may be feeling – they may be wondering how they will get their work done, if their job is secure, how they will stay in touch and what work they can do from home.

This is the time for you to get clarity on what you can and can't control, to be in control of your emotions and lead your people by focusing on what can be achieved. It’s a time for developing backup plans, putting family first, encouraging eating plant powered food, having straight talk with your teams, maintaining your tribe vibe through distance and continuing to move more and stay physical.

In my 10 Degree Shift to healthy vibrant workplaces I outline the interconnected web of elements that research has proven are needed to ensure workplace ecologies are productive and thriving. Never before have they been more necessary and pertinent.

Here are some simple actions you can also take starting now:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Gossip loves a void and spreads quickly in the workplace, especially in the absence of the leaders voice. During a crisis, communicate promptly, truth tell about what you do and do not know, and share the plan and its current state of execution. In the case of the coronavirus, be open and honest if you and the other leaders are struggling to determine the impact of the situation and share exactly what you are doing to prepare for the possible outcomes.

  • Set a couple of online huddle times a week - use GotoMeeting, Zoom or whatever your platform of choice to get all your team online together and talk about how they are feeling, what can be done and strategies for navigating this new landscape. Humans are social creatures and the workplace is one of our anchor communities so you need to maintain that sense of connection as much as possible.

  • Do a mental health audit - regularly check in and ask your people "Are you OK?", encourage them to continue drinking lots of water and stay hydrated and not go overboard on caffeine (often people are better at this at work where there is a water filter on tap). As Simon Sinek says "leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in your charge."

  • Establish set work hours – even though team members may now be working from home don’t allow that to bleed into family time. Encourage staff to maintain boundaries and adhere to them yourself. I heard a great interview recently with both Brooke Franklin GM of TOM Organic and Tim Baxter Marketing Manager for Who Gives a Crap on the podcast One Wild Ride on virtual teams that is really relevant as more people work from home - some of their top tips included set days and times for the whole team to be available for meetings, distinctive boundaries around ‘off-work’ times, and Slack as a tool to facilitate communication. 

  • Trust your people - one of the biggest challenges I hear from leaders, even before Covid-19 is how will I know people are doing the work when they are at home and I can't watch what they are doing. While inspiration gets people to take the first step and follow when things are smooth sailing, trust gets people to go the distance and work with you through the storm. This may well be the best lesson and learning you get from this chaotic time. Trust isn't just something people earn, trust is something you extend first for them to uphold and lean into. Believe that people are essentially good in nature and want to do what's right, establish mechanisms for basic reporting and support and watch them earn your trust. This doesn't mean they are infallible - one of the biggest challenges they will face is staying focused and on task while at home with all of its distractions, so be upfront about the reality with them, talk about it, have open dialogue and then let them do their work.
    When we create environments in which people feel like they belong, the result is trust and collaboration. Circles of Safety allow people to spend their time and energy working together toward a higher cause that inspires them, and withstand the inevitable pressures and dangers all teams face.

  • Calm your own stress and anxiety – meditate, use essential oils, practice deep breathing and check in regularly to ensure your stress levels don’t get out of hand. It is typical to see stress in the workplace, such as feeling overworked or undervalued, being perceived as a threat and in turn activating the stress response. However, in the current situation, the stress response may be triggered by feelings of isolation and fear leading to higher levels of these stress chemicals in the body. This can spell disaster as it can lower immunity making our bodies more susceptible to viruses such as Corona.

  • Being calm does not mean being passive, or ignorant of the events around you. Encourage your team to consider the impact of the crisis and the tools available to them to mitigate various outcomes. Work with your team and other departments to undertake a review of your business strategy for the coming six months, review your existing products and services and ask how else could this be delivered in this new world? What supply chain issues might we face? What’s our budget projection for both our worst case scenario and best case scenario? What options do we have for cost saving and income generation during this time?
Make no mistake this is a time when your leadership skills will be put to the test. This is a critical time to be the calm for your people, the steady voice amid the chaos, be alert, not alarmed, take a long term strategic viewpoint and make decisions that put people before profit.

Remember as a leader everything you say and do and don’t say and don’t do is watched and observed. Be a leader who uses this time to build trust and a psychologically safe environment for your people and you will be rewarded with loyalty long term. 

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