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Leading Your Team Through Uncertainty

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The true measure of leadership is gauged not when things are going well, but when circumstances are tough, uncertainty abounds and people are worried about their future. Employees look to their leaders for guidance and reassurance, which can be challenging even at the best of times.  

The way we live and work is changing in ways unimaginable only a few months ago, and the way we lead our teams is more important than ever. With companies sending employees home to work, being able to lead virtual teams and keep everyone connected is going to be the true test of every leader this year.

If I think back over my career, it’s fair to say I’ve had some great leaders and some truly awful ones — leaders who inspired me and others who made me doubt my abilities and look elsewhere for a role. As an HR executive and career coach with 25 years of experience, I’ve witnessed leadership up close, and the most engaged and well-functioning teams are those with strong, confident leaders who understand how to get the best out of their employees under a variety of conditions. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, I found the leaders who kept clear and open lines of communication with their teams managed well. The CEO Sameer Bhatia shared in a  2017 Forbes column some other critical actions leaders can take to navigate a crisis:

Don’t allow your emotions to get the best of you

It’s understandable for everyone, including leaders, to feel overwhelmed by the thought of operating in a new reality. What’s important is to not let your emotions get the better of you, control what you can and realize that, even in a crisis, there’s still plenty you can control. Employees can sense when their leader is panicked, and it causes them to panic, which can then spiral out of control in terms of performance and engagement. While the course of your days will surely be influenced by the uncertainty of the situation, I find breaking time down into tasks to be helpful. It can keep you—and, in turn, your team—grounded, providing focus and structure. 

Remain positive to remain productive

In a crisis, you can choose to either panic or be productive. Your teams will look to you for solutions, and if you can project calm and positivity, your teams will respond to that. Better yet, get them involved in finding solutions to the challenges at hand. You won’t know the answer to everything, and getting the team involved in the solution also gives them a sense of control over a situation in which they feel like they have little.

Manage expectations

It’s important to be clear about what you can and can’t control and to let teams know that it might be some time before things return to normal. That gives them the ability to better process that adjustments will need to be made and that flexibility will be required to meet challenges and changing needs.

Remember, it’s not personal

A common feeling among leaders is that when things don’t go well, it’s their fault. Keep in mind that in a situation like we’re in now, as a leader, you can only control so much, so if something doesn’t work out as planned, it doesn’t work out as planned. It’s how you deal with that setback that is essential. For example, a frequent question I hear from leaders centers around how they can still manage targets and deadlines when there are so many unknowns. My answer is you can’t always. You need to accept that timelines will slip because people are afraid and their focus may not be at 100%. A key way to address that is to identify what you really need your staff to complete and put realistic timelines in place. With people working from home, one of the most important things you can do is focus on engagement and keeping people connected. 

Exercise your fearlessness

Focusing on what really needs to be accomplished can help you exercise some control over what’s happening, and if a project doesn’t get completed on time, reevaluate. Was the timeline correct in this environment? Did it really need to be done? Consider new ways of working, new ways of approaching a project or deadline. We’re all feeling uneasy right now, but, as a leader, you’re in a unique position to be a guiding force. You’ve gotten where you are today for a reason. Turn in to the discomfort and charge ahead anyway. Your teams will thank you for it.

Jane Hollman

About Jane Hollman

Jane Hollman has more than 25 years experience in senior human resources roles at large multinationals and sports across Asia Pacific and the United States. Currently a career coach, she helps business leaders and university students think through their career paths. Hollman is passionate about creating flexible, innovative work places and mentors women looking to start their own businesses. She is also a freelance writer covering the business of sports for publications such as Women Talking Sports.

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