I’m not one of those super leaders — those people who seem to just naturally know how to lead others. Many of us — leaders of people, leaders of teams — came into our roles somewhat reluctantly. We were really good at doing the work as individual contributors, and we got promoted on that basis to oversee the people who do that same work. We’ve muddled through, checking the boxes that HR makes us check, giving our employees direction only when we absolutely have to, approving assorted processes, and divvying up bonus money once a year to try to reward employee performance.
We all know that ideally, our roles as people leaders are really important, but in the real world, many of us prefer to focus on the work rather than the leading. Yesterday, we were able to get away with that. Today, the world is different.
There’s not a lot we can count on right now. The news is changing by the minute, our organizations are therefore changing how they are responding, and many of us are feeling anxious and scared. We — and the people we lead — may be asking things such as “is my family safe? Will I still have a job? What’s going to happen to my friends and neighbors?” The answer to all of those questions is that we don’t know. As team leaders, we don’t need to pretend to know the answers, either.
What should we, the reluctant people leaders, do right now, to be the leaders our team members need us to be in these scary and uncertain times? We can provide continuity, connectedness, and constancy, in the context of work. Luckily, doing that doesn’t require special training or tools or being an expert coach. Just take it in three steps.
First, establish continuity
Team members need to hear directly from you. Your messages need to be real and supportive. As a team leader, you set the tone and are the voice of reality. Be clear, steady, and real. Support the organizational stance. They need to be able to rely on you for the truth and lean into you for your stability.
I’m always recommending regular check-in conversations, because the research shows that they’re the most powerful thing you can do to keep your team members engaged. They’re light touch and focus on how your people are feeling, while taking their current priorities into account. They’re also a way to find out how you as a team leader can help. In normal times, a weekly cadence is the most powerful. But in our current environment, I recommend that daily communication should become your norm.
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Next, create connectedness
There’s a reason check-ins are effective. Having radically frequent attention from the most important person to us is the common denominator to performance, trust, and resilience — and not just at work. Imagine if you only heard “I love you” from your MIP (Most Important Person) once a year, or once a month. Let your team members know you see them and care about them. How you show attention — text, conversation, phone call — doesn’t matter. Just show it. You’re one of the most important ways that they can feel connected to the organization and the rest of the team.
Finally, maintain constancy
It’s human to be worried and scared, and separating ourselves from those concerns is impossible. And there’s a very specific way that leaders can become a beacon of constancy. People need to keep doing their work. It grounds them. But in uncertain times, employees may not be sure what still needs to be done or what should be prioritized. They need clarity from you around the most important work to be done right now, and what can wait. They will be able to bring themselves to focus more clearly if they also know that you are their number one advocate for the resources they need and that you will support them at those times when they need to take care of things outside of work.
As leaders, this is our time to overinvest in the role we may have taken reluctantly. You can provide continuity through frequency of attention. You can and should be the connector, bringing together the most important voices in the context of work. And you can be one of the very few constants in their lives by being the singular voice your team members will hear from every day