Slowly news trickled in from around the world. There was a new virus spreading in Asia. Death rates were elevated and the disease was spreading quickly among people. But few in the US were thinking much of it. As weeks passed, more information and more chatter began to raise concern for some. Infection rates and death tolls around the world were now front page news. Finally, the White House held a press conference. People around the country tuned in, waiting for the President to share something comforting and concrete.
Yes, I am talking about COVID-19. But as I watch this unfold, I can’t help but think about how a similar process (albeit much less life threatening) plays out in our organizations every day.
Slowly news trickles in from around the company. Someone said there is a new strategy brewing amongst leadership. It’s going to be big. The whole company is going to need to shift to take on new work, redefine processes and manage the change that comes with it. Few front line folks seem to be paying much attention because it doesn’t impact them right now, but it’s playing in the back of their minds. As weeks pass, more information leaks and more the chatter continues to raise levels of anxiety. Talk of layoffs is now filtering through the organization. People are increasingly distracted trying to guess what is to come. Finally, the CEO calls a Town Hall. People all over the company tune in, expecting the CEO to share something comforting and concrete.
In these situations, the people don’t typically get comforting or concrete information to ground in. And so, the fear and uncertainty continue to be the loudest voices.
Yes, these are incredibly scary and uncertain times. But some level of insecurity and fear permeates most workplaces. We don’t yet have an antidote for COVID-19. But we do have an antidote for fear and uncertainty: communication. It costs nothing and yet can save you millions in lost time and productivity.
Here are the 3 most impactful things you can do to help your people calm their fears and reactions to uncertainty, and focus on the work.
1. Be clear and direct about priorities - Anxiety, fear and grief impacts cognitive function. That, combined with a whole new set of distractions (kids, spouse, the kitchen, the dog), means that we would estimate your folks are operating at 50-75% effectiveness right now. So your team needs your help. Where should they spend that 50-75% of brain power? What really matters? Help your team understand what the priorities really are right now. Start with what needs to get done to keep the business operational and go from there. Land on 2-3 clear priorities and revisit this every week or two, depending on the pace of your business. When life “returns to normal”, maintain this habit (even if the number of priorities increases).
2. Prioritize informal communication - When there is a lack of concrete organizational and procedural information available, it becomes even more important to focus on informal communication. Being a visible and vocal leader gives your employees something to rely on and connect with when everything else is shifting around them.
Whether or not you’ve had 1:1s with your team in the past, you need to now. We know, that’s crazy. You have less time than you did in the past and you didn't have enough then! Plus less mental space and cognitive function! But your team needs you and you’re a leader. This is what you signed up for. So:
- If you already have 1:1s scheduled, hold them. This is not the time to cancel them
- If you don't have regular 1:1s scheduled with your team, start now. Every other week for 30m is just fine if that’s what it needs to be. But your team needs time with you.
- Pop in. Not physically (social distancing!), but virtually. Send them a chat, a slack, an email and just touch base - a quick “hello, how are you”, or “whatcha working on?” will do. When we get back to the office, you can add dropping by someone’s cube or office to the mix.
In these conversations, don’t hesitate to acknowledge the uncertainty of the moment. It is ok to say, “I know there is a lot of uncertainty right now. Things are changing quickly. What do you need from me?” This leads us to the next point...
3. Flex your empathy muscles - There is nothing worse than having anxiety and feeling all alone in it. Dr. Brene Brown talks often of “the story we make up,” which is the meaning we make of a situation, regardless of whether we have enough information or not. In uncertain times, we can guarantee that some number of your employees are making up the following story…
It’s only a matter of time before I get laid off. If the company is going in a new direction, they probably won’t need someone with my skill set. Not to mention I just got here/I’ve been here forever/there are several people who have the same skills as me. If I get laid off, how will I pay the bills, face my spouse, tell my friends?”
Our stories are rarely accurate, but they are still incredibly distracting. How productive or creative do you think this person will be when they are telling themselves stories like that? So how do you figure out what stories are being made up? Simple. Ask your people. Tell them that you know it's easy to make up stories in times of limited information. That you do it too. Ask them what stories they are making up and then acknowledge their story. Thank them for sharing and name how intense their specific story might feel. Share what you can, reassure where you can and talk to them about how their unique contributions are important for the team.
For COVID-19 times, you may have fewer answers. And that’s ok. Your job is not to provide the answer. It’s to remind them that they're not alone in this.
We have been rocket launched into a new wave of uncertainty, which only layers on top of the uncertainty that already existed in your team and your organization. It can be very tempting to put your head down, and wait until you have “something meaningful” to share. We hear that from clients all the time. But in organizational life, no news is not always good news. Err on the side of over communicating. Some team members won’t need as much time and attention to continue on and be productive. And others will need more than you know.
What we need most are courageous leaders who are willing to walk into the arena, show up for their people, lead them, manage them, communicate with them, and acknowledge their humanity.