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Leading a Team in Uncertain Times

Uncertainty is something leaders must contend with during the best of times. Business is filled with market ups and downs, change initiatives, changes in personnel and business model pivots that make it difficult to create a sense of equilibrium for a team. Add to that major disruptions in the economy and the fear of Covid-19 and day to day operations can feel like they are on very shaky ground indeed.

Here are 5 non-negotiables you need to bring to your team to create a sense of solidity and solidarity:

Keep your emotional reactions in check. The reality is that you are not immune to the same stress your team is under. The difference is that your team not only looks to you for direction when times are uncertain, they also look to you (consciously or unconsciously) as a role model on how to meet that uncertainty. If you are flying off the handle or acting like the world is falling apart, you will create even more uncertainty for your team.

This doesn’t mean you need to be inauthentic. It’s ok to acknowledge that you also feel stressed over the situation, but hold the emotional outbursts and venting for a mentor or peer - not for those who look to you for leadership.

The best way to hold yourself in check is to make sure you have good self-care practices in place. Get plenty of sleep, eat well and exercise. Taking periodic 1-minute breaks throughout the day to focus on your breath will have surprisingly positive effects on your well-being. Something as simple as making sure you are consuming enough water throughout the day will help keep your focus and ability to think through problems in top form. Encourage your team to take the same measures.

Promote a “we have each others’ backs” culture. When under stress, short tempers quickly lead to blame, defensiveness and other reactions that can undermine communication and collaboration. Shifting the team toward having each others’ backs will help everyone feel more supported. This makes the team stronger than the sum of its individuals.

Do this by talking about what it means to have each others’ backs during this situation - give specific examples and ask your team to also provide examples. More broadly it means:

  1. Be generous in your assumptions rather than taking things personally - if someone is short tempered, assume they are having a rough day rather than deliberately attacking you.

  2. Notice when someone is having a hard day and ask if they need support rather than just trying to ignore what is happening around you.

  3. Acknowledge team mates for doing a good job and thank them for their efforts.

  4. Compassionately suggest someone take a break if it is clear they need one. They may resist the suggestion so pointing out that they would probably feel better and be more able to focus or problem solve after a break is key.

  5. Be kind to each other - everyone is having a hard time and kindness goes a long way.

Make it safe for people to have emotional reactions while guiding the conversation toward solutions. It’s important to speak to what is happening in the business or external world in a real way, without allowing the team to disintegrate into fear. The best way to balance the conversation is to be solution-focused. Invite your team to talk about what is happening, and how they feel about it, and also brainstorm solutions to whatever is raised.

Rather than focusing on how things aren’t working or going down the rabbit hole of possible disastrous scenarios and their consequences, acknowledge the reality of the situation you are in and ask questions like “How can we meet this challenge together?” “What kind of support do you need right now?” People feel less stress when there are solutions to impending problems, even if the exact course of action hasn’t been decided yet. People also feel less stress and more empowered when they participate in creating the solution.

Direct your team’s focus to the vision and outcomes you are going for. As a leader, your number one responsibility is to be the holder of the vision for your team and business. Not only are you the holder of that vision but you need to communicate it at all times, especially these times. The vision is your North Star and when times are uncertain, people have a tendency to lose their sense of direction.

Your vision should be a combination of the big why of the business and the exact outcomes you are going for as an organization and as a team. Any shift in the outcomes, in response to the uncertainty you face, should be communicated immediately to the team. You don’t want the team to also feel uncertain about what they should be focused on.

Direct their attention both toward the larger goals and also the outcomes to specific projects. Ground in the outcomes as part of your agenda in every meeting - including the outcomes of the meeting. By directing your team’s focus, you will move forward on what is most important and also help to dispel uncertainty.

Set up accountability structures. There are many ways accountability can go out the window during times of stress. With people calling in sick or requesting to work from home it may feel like the team is moving in different directions. Stay on top of it by:

  1. Checking in frequently. Daily stand ups, weekly 1:1’s and/or weekly team debriefs and goal-setting are great practices for keeping everyone moving in the same direction. Working in sprints, or Agile project management, is also a fantastic accountability structure.

  2. Have a recovery plan. A recovery plan is an agreement about what will happen if things go off track. Not only should you have a plan but also a clear understanding about when the plan should be enacted. It doesn’t need to be complex - simply saying that the whole team will reconvene if something goes awry is a recovery plan. Some projects may need more in-depth plans with specific triggers for the plan to go into effect.

  3. Take extra care when delegating. Make sure the delegatee fully understands the purpose, desired outcomes, potential pitfalls and resources they have (or don’t have) access to. Create a plan for followup and support.

  4. Meet regularly to make sure you are in alignment with your outcomes. If people are working from home, meet by video conference - being able to see each other will lead to higher levels of accountability.

It may feel like each day brings new difficulties right now, but you can make it easier for your company, your team and yourself by exercising the non-negotiables above.

Remember, the faster you can accept change, the better you can respond.

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