I wrote a prior blog post about thriving through the uncertainty the world has to offer but from the individual perspective. However this is a leadership blog and while I do think it is important to put your own oxygen mask first, I also know that we don’t get to stop there. As a side note, and throw back to the prior post, the fact that we leaders can’t stop there is the exact reason it is so important that we get our minds and action right very quickly. People are looking to us to see how to respond and we want them to see the duck floating on top of the water not necessarily the feet going like crazy underneath.
None of us have lead through a pandemic of epic proportion before so, like many things, we just assume we don’t know how. I am here to tell you not to give in to that crazy side of your brain, it is wrong. You do know how to do this you just haven’t had the opportunity to apply what you know to Coronavirus, yet. No time like the present right? I do not profess the below to be an exhaustive how-to guide. I do believe reframing the narrative, acknowledging the difficulties, promoting creativity, and focusing on relationships are the basic structure that we’re able to come back to, to define where we went wrong in a mistake and highlight where we’re making strides. Each situation will have elements of all of them and it’s our job as leaders to reflect on what worked in regard to each, what didn’t, and take steps to closing the gap for the next situation.
Reframe the Narative
This goes back to how you digest the input you’re getting during this, or any difficult time. Do you see it as a blessing with a challenge that you can find a solution for? Or is it just a problem, roadblock, or loss. Period. End of story. How you frame it indicates how you respond to it. How you respond to it informs your team on how to respond to it.
You’ve been here before. Think of a time that your child got hurt. Not like skinned their knee hurt but where something could have caused a trip to the hospital. My oldest recently built a jump for his bike that he promptly went over crooked causing his leg to get twisted in the bike frame as they both feel abruptly to the ground. For a split second I thought, that could break his leg. He is a little bit of a hypochondriac so rather than run check on him, I decided in that split second that this would be better as a teaching opportunity than a run and comfort. I chose a different response. I stayed right where I was, stayed quiet for a moment, and then asked, “You good buddy? Come here if you want me to look at it.” My reframing as a “teaching moment” can’t change whether or not his leg breaks but it can change how I respond to it and then how he responds to it. His face said “Call 911!” but he restrained his mouth. He got up, kind of walked and stretched a minute (while making very loud breathing noises so everyone knew how big of deal it was), and went back to riding his bike.
By consciously deciding how I would view the situation I influenced my little man’s response. I didn’t tell him how to react I showed him how I would react. Never did I say, “You’re fine,” or “Walk it off,” I just calmly asked if he was ok and offered to look at it. Did he follow suit perfectly? No, but he did follow my lead and was able to pick himself up and dust himself off.
Acknowledge the Difficulties
This situation is hard. People are scared of getting sick, they are scared of friends and family getting sick. There are countless elderly alone in nursing homes and mothers alone in delivery rooms. You don’t really want to go to any public place but you end up in the grocery store more often because now you have a whole family living 24 hours a day under one roof. There are so many dang blessings in all of that but I am here to tell you it is also really hard. Now the one place that should have order for your employees is work, but don’t confuse order with blind optimism. There is nothing anyone hates more than a leader who’s view is so far in the clouds they don’t seem to realize that here on Earth there are real struggles. I think we’ve all seen a leader do this at some point. In an effort to model positivity they are walking around like they rode into the office on a rainbow while the rest of us are taking shelter from the hail. I may, or may not, have been accused of this in the past. (It is difficult to overcome when you come by it though a natural, genuine, zeal for life.) People want sincerity and honesty. They want to know that they can trust you and if it feels like you either don’t understand or are lying about the situation they can’t. It’s a tough balance though right? Model the positive perspective, be solution oriented, and acknowledge how hard and scary it is right now. That is especially true when you’re not honestly in that positive solution oriented mindset yet. (Another throw back to why it’s so important to get your self taken care of first and quickly.)
You’ve been here before. Imagine a time where something was very difficult or scary at work and your boss, or maybe their boss (it seems to get worse the higher up you go), just started telling everyone everything was fine. It’s all under control. Things are great, we’ve never been better, and we’re going to just keep on getting better from here. So don’t worry, you’re in good hands. A prime example of this in my life was in working for a large company which was well known for “re-organizations” in which large groups of people could be let go at a time. We were crazy busy, they weren’t replacing people who left, and we were told departments would be “combined.” As my co-workers and I could start to see the writing on the wall, we were brought into a Q&A meeting with the some of the supervisors. We were met with a response of, “Don’t you feel like you’re needed? You keep saying you’re busy. This business is cyclical and if you feel like there is enough work to go around there is nothing to worry about.” I remember just staring at the self-elected spokesperson of the supervisors, speechless. Our perspective on the amount of work we have to do has no impact on the company’s plan to keep the department open. A group of co-workers and I were chatting after the meeting to clarify the message (that’s the nice way of saying complain about the meeting). Another supervisor saw us and offered something to the effect of, this whole thing sucks and I wish there was more we could share. It is scary and we can only control what we can control. If you’re worried you’ll have to look for a job, start sprucing up your resume. You were looking for a job when you found this one, and you can do it again.
She didn’t provide (or potentially have) any more information than the first supervisor. She was positive but didn’t offer any uplifting advice or tell us everything would be fine. We had families to support and were looking at likely losing our jobs. I can tell you though, sitting with us in that frustration and then offering something tangible to do was absolutely more comforting, useful, and beneficial, than telling us if we felt busy then everything would be fine.
Work still needs to get done right now regardless of the climate. There are customers and employees who are depending on you and your company to continue to work and serve others. How do you do that? Creativity. You need to be creative to get everything done and you can’t come up with all of the “how” on your own. Your creative juices are informed by your perspective, experiences, understanding of the why, etc. That means they are also informed by your biases, negativity, and a little bit of your own personal WIIFM (what’s in it for me). (It is human nature and what we typically, positively, refer to as experience or wisdom. It’s important to remember though, this can have positive and negative effects.) How do you fill that gap? By involving other people to include all of their experience, perspectives, and biases as well. There is a whole team of people that you’re leading who also have ideas and often better ones than you because they are the ones actually doing the work.
You’ve been here before. Think of a time when you really needed to think outside the box. Maybe you had a bad set up in the first place or maybe you had a great set up, process, workflow, etc but needed now to make some changes. It was hard to come up with the best way to handle it wasn’t it? There are pros and cons to every decision you make changing the “how” work gets done is important. Or, if you’re like me, you are decisive and weigh the situation against the big picture strategy, boom decision made. However, this can cause you to miss the details and overlook some little issues that turn into big problems down the road.
This happened to a leader I know when a member of one of the teams she manages quit. She needed to make a quick decision to get the work done and the choice was a solid one, made in the moment, with the information she had available. Though it wasn’t a long term solution, it allowed her to prioritize and reallocate work so nothing got missed. To develop the long term solution, she brought just the facts to one of her team meetings. She came to them and said these tasks are critical, these are important, and these are ones that need to be tracked but can wait for a replacement. The team quickly came up with several solutions and while not all of them quite fit the need, there were a few that allowed all work to be completed and gave room to develop training opportunities for new people as they came on board. She offered some guidance but the team knew how to most efficiently and effectively get the work done so they were able to create a solid solution that could be counted on in the future.
This one has benefits from multiple sides. You get a better solution, your team has more buy-in to the direction you’re going, and it allows you to work on the next step below.
Focus on Relationships
When times are uncertain and scary and things aren’t working like you’re used to, people feel isolated. To compound that problem about 5000% the goal and best case scenario right now is that everyone is physically isolated. It is our job to ensure that our team doesn’t feel that way regardless of the required space between you.
This one I struggled to come up with an example that all, or the majority of people, could relate to. I do believe we’ve all been here before too, it’s just that relationships are so personal that each of us would treat it differently. Imagine a long distance relationship in college where you did everything that technology would allow to stay in touch with that person. Imagine the work trip you went on when your kids were small and you called home daily to hear their little voices tell you they missed you. Imagine that vacation you had scheduled so far in advance that you couldn’t know it would be the exact time a big contract or project or (insert any important conclusion at work) was coming to fruition and you checked your email on your phone every time you could to make sure your team was getting it done and didn’t need you. I can relate to each and every one of these situations and more. Prior to everyone working from home as a result of the pandemic, I had lead project teams with a combination of onsite and remote staff, supervised part-time work from home employees, directly supervised people in another state, lead supervisors who were supervising remotely, etc. You would think that that would clearly qualify me for this situation but I was still scared in the beginning and am frustrated by the loss of interactive non-verbal’s I would normally get from some of my team. The key to success in this one is the exact thing that makes adding one example so difficult. Each person, each relationship, is so very unique. Spend time in each one to determine what it needs. Maybe a break from your daily enthusiasm is exactly what one person needed (I can think of 1 or 2 on my team who might agree with that.) while another needs to know it’s OK to send you a meme at 6am so you can still start the day laughing. You need to understand what you need to feel part of the team and what they need. Set some ground rules and be flexible for each of them to fall into the rhythm of their own long distance relationship.
Things I’m reminding myself of
You’ve been here before. (Are you sick of reading that yet?) You know how to do all of the things and you have practiced doing them. All you’re doing now is applying them to a new situation. Guess what, you’ve been here before too! Before you hired someone, ran a meeting, gave constructive feedback, became a leader, you didn’t know how to apply the knowledge you had to that situation, but you did it. Certainly not perfectly but you were able to do it. There is nothing wrong with making a mistake and improving. Be confident in what you know and how you can apply it to everything you do.
Remind your team of what you’re reminding yourself of. (See prior post to remind yourself.) Your team needs to focus on gratitude and what they can control. They need to go back to basics on maintaining themselves to continue positive thoughts, actions, and habits. Finally, they need to look outside themselves and open up their world. That one, you can facilitate even within your own team. Encourage them to talk about their struggles (within reason) and listen to one another. It won’t be a real wide world view, but you have to start somewhere.
“This is just an opportunity to get way better.” This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite bosses and I steal it regularly. The first time he said it I was in full out panic mode in my head (who am I kidding, I’m sure I had no control of my face). The problem seemed so overwhelming and I had no idea how to get around it at the time. Now, I truly can’t even remember what it was. I’m not trying to imply that we’ll forget Coronavirus, we won’t. I do think though that a little time will allow us to reflect on it with perspective. I want, for myself and all of us, to reflect back that we have closer relationships despite social distancing, enhanced skills despite being held back from “how we’ve always done it,” and that we are strong individually and as a community despite a situation that has the power to tear us down and rip us apart. Let’s take this opportunity, and get way better.