Facing Uncertainty: Leadership Best Practices
By Ally Smit
COVID-19 has drastically impacted the way we work around the world. Many businesses around the globe have locked up their offices and provided their employees with the tools required to work from home, whereas other organizations have had no choice but to close their doors temporarily. As a leader, you have faced high levels of uncertainty in the past few weeks and have experienced firsthand how uncertainty impacts your employees and your organization. When drastic change occurs, it can be difficult to focus on anything other than keeping your business afloat. However, now more than ever, your employees require effective leadership to help combat the uncertainty your organization is facing. Consider these best practices for inspiration on how you can demonstrate effective leadership during COVID-19.
1. Identify Intolerance of Uncertainty & Practice Empathy
An effective leader is empathetic to employee concerns and provides support to address organizational stress. Everyone handles change differently, and your employees will differ in their ability to tolerate uncertainty. Some employees may be comfortable with uncertainty and will adapt positively in response, whereas others may struggle to accept the lack of certainty in their lives. If your organization has moved to working remotely, then it can be difficult for you as a leader to identify which employees are struggling most with the lack of certainty regarding COVID-19. Oftentimes employees that are struggling may not be willing to bring their concerns forward but instead opt to remain silent and shy away from discussion.
There are a variety of ways in which you as a leader can identify which of your employees are struggling most during COVID-19 uncertainty. Depending on your organizational culture and the size of your team, you may find it most appropriate to create a team video conversation where employees can feel free to discuss their concerns openly. Those who may not feel comfortable bringing up their concerns one-on-one may feel most comfortable addressing their concerns with their peers present. In addition, you may wish to schedule one-on-one conversations with your employees to better understand how they are feeling on a personal level. Regardless of which method you choose, it is important as a leader to practice empathy in order to better understand how each of your employees may be feeling at this time. By demonstrating empathy and identifying how your employees are responding to the uncertainty, you can better cater resources to support them – such as providing employees with access to an Employee Assistance Program.
2. Practice Open, Honest, & Transparent Leadership
In addition, an effective leader is one who combats organizational uncertainty by remaining open, honest, and transparent. You cannot provide employees with an exact date at which they can return to work without the threat of COVID-19 – this uncertainty is out of your control, however, you can help relieve some employee stress by remaining open and honest about how your organization is adapting. If you have not had an open conversation with your team regarding what result COVID-19 has had on your organization, then it may cause your employees to jump to worst-case conclusions.
Consider practicing open and honest leadership by scheduling a team video call with your employees to discuss what impact COVID-19 has had on your business and what it means for the future of your company. Finish the call by allowing your employees to ask questions and provide them with honest answers. Avoid using vague statements that may cause employees to further speculate and jump to conclusions once the conversation has ended. In times of crisis, employees require a leader that they trust will provide them with the truth.
3. Discuss Workflow Expectations & Encourage Adaptation
As a leader, it’s important to understand that some of your employees will adapt quickly to working remotely and remain highly productive, while at the same time, some may struggle, finding it difficult to create a workspace at home that meets their needs, or being distracted by having their family at home and needing to work in the evenings to accommodate computer sharing. It is important to discuss your performance expectations with your team to ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to productivity. Consider sending out an email or scheduling one-on-one video conversations with your employees to discuss workflow expectations and how you can best support them. You may also find it effective to schedule daily check-ins with your team every morning to discuss what projects each team member is working on, and whether they will require additional time or support to complete each task. For more ideas on how you can effectively support your newly remote workforce, consider Harvard Business Review’s article “A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers”.
In addition, an effective leader is one who promotes adaptation during uncertain times. While you are adapting to changing demands and requirements, you want to ensure that your employees are adapting their workflow as well. For example, a team that may have normally met in person to discuss weekly priorities and to identify progress on certain projects, may now be struggling to discuss their priorities and progress over a video chat format. Therefore, you may need to encourage the team to brainstorm ways in which they can adapt and still meet the requirements of their unit. You can start by providing them with a list of free online tools aimed to increase communication and workflow across remote teams and ask them to identify which tools may best suit their needs. Consider the tools listed in the article “Top 18 Remote Work Tools for Happy and Productive Employees” and ask your employees to consider other methods that may help them adapt to organizational changes.
4. Remain Flexible to Changing Needs & Organizational Culture
Lastly, in uncertain times, an effective leader will remain flexible to changing needs and organizational culture. Over time, you will discover that your employee’s needs have changed, and you will have to demonstrate flexibility to effectively support them. It’s important to remember that your employees are still adjusting to the effect that COVID-19 has had on your organization, and therefore your employees’ needs may change week to week. Consider asking your employees on a weekly basis what is working well for them, what isn’t working well, and what could be improved.
Additionally, your organizational culture will change over time, and it is important to be supportive of these changes. For example, your employees may be using Slack or other online tools to communicate with each other on a more casual basis, and this change in communication may have an impact on your organizational culture. As a leader, it’s important to recognize how your organizational culture may shift and remain supportive to these changes.
In summary, there are many ways in which you can demonstrate effective leadership during uncertain times. Every leader is different, every organization is varied, and every workforce offers a variety of challenges. When considering how to respond to different challenges related to COVID-19, ensure that whichever method you choose effectively demonstrates your leadership style and the needs of your organization.