I am not an epidemiologist. I may have read up on the 1918 influenza pandemic, but that doesn’t make me a reliable source of information on COVID-19. In fact, I have no medical training whatsoever. Though I’m unlikely to dispense any, please do not follow advice from me on the coronavirus (but do visit the CDC or the WHO if you need info).
I am, however, a small business owner of a leadership development company. My colleagues and I are considered experts on leadership behaviors and skill development. And the temptation to think that now—a moment of crisis—is when the “real” experts should speak up, and we should stay silent, is nothing more than imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head.
Imposter syndrome—the feeling of doubt about your own accomplishments and experience—is never helpful. But if it persuades you to stay silent when people need you, it can be destructive.
In times of crisis, it’s critical we know who the real experts are. For coronavirus matters, it’s public health experts and medical professionals.
But what about your employees? The ones looking for help navigating their new work at home arrangements? Your team members struggling to reprioritize work that’s been upended by recent events? Your employees grasping to make sense of what a pandemic and impending recession means for their company, their team, their job?
The expert they are looking to is YOU. And they need you to lead. Here’s how:
1. Listen with Empathy
Though it may sound trite, it’s often true: we don’t really know what people are going through. As a manager, it can be difficult to navigate conversations about an employee’s personal challenges outside of work. In normal times, these boundaries are useful. But these aren’t normal times. With schools shut down indefinitely, stores closed, and connections with family and friends virtually suspended, it’s safe to assume every member of your team is struggling.
Job #1 for you? Listen. And not just to gather information, but to understand what they are experiencing—to empathize. Listening with empathy isn’t as fluffy as it sounds. It involves a few concrete behaviors we can all practice.
ASK GENUINELY CURIOUS QUESTIONS.
These aren’t random conversation starters, but thoughtfully considered questions designed to help you understand what an employee is experiencing. Here are a few to consider:
What are 2-3 things that have surprised you about your remote work arrangement? Any pleasant surprises? Unexpected frustrations?
What is most challenging for you (as a parent? a spouse/partner? living alone?) about social distancing?
What is a task that you didn’t have time to work on before but might have time to tackle now?
Patience conveys that you aren’t just checking a box or looking for a quick answer, but truly care about someone’s experience. Demonstrating patience may involve periods of silence, especially in virtual conversations that are prone to delays. Resist the urge to fill every gap in conversation by sharing your own thoughts. You asked a question—give the speaker space to think and answer it on their own timing. You’ll get more thoughtful responses and you’ll project greater empathy.
ASK FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS.
Listening with empathy isn’t a spectator sport. It requires engaging with the speaker to seek clarification about what you’ve heard and understand their perspective. Short, probing questions (or statements) demonstrate to the speaker that you’re interested in hearing more, and sound like the following:
Tell me more about that…
That sounds interesting/tough/challenging—can you tell me more?
That’s a great suggestion—do you have others?
You aren’t the team therapist, but you are the team’s manager—an impactful role when you consider how much of their daily life is spent working for you. And if they need more help than you can provide, you can direct them to the right experts or resources.
2. Offer Specific Help
Of course, you can’t fix everything. But not being able to fix everything doesn’t mean we can’t fix anything.
Genuine offers of help demonstrate that you not only listened and empathize, but also that you care. But even genuine offers can unintentionally burden the person we’re trying to help if they are vague.
In her book, Option B : Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg explains that when we’re reeling from trauma, we struggle to articulate what we need and how others can help us. In those moments, what we really need is a “panic button”–someone to jump in and provide concrete help.
There are two ways you can be the “panic button” for your employees.
MAKE SPECIFIC OFFERS OF HELP TO YOUR TEAM.
If you’ve listened and understand the challenges your team is facing, work with them to make concrete improvements that make their lives easier. Here are some ideas:
Is your team feeling overworked?
Ask your team to participate in a prioritization exercise. This will engage them in the process of identifying what’s important and give you a chance to take low priority work off their plates.
Is work/life balance a struggle for employees with school-aged kids at home?
Propose shift work. If some of your team’s work can be done effectively in off hours, give the parents on your team the flexibility to work when it makes sense for their new reality at home.
PROACTIVELY HELP YOUR TEAM.
In many cases, expecting employees to take initiative and ask for help is reasonable, if not healthy. But when people are overwhelmed, you can help by bypassing the ask > offer step and just doing it. If there are roadblocks you can remove, just take care of them. If there are tasks people are struggling with, proactively assign others to help or jump right in yourself.
What is true for your employees is true for you, too. Engage with your manager. Request time to meet with them if they don’t reach out to you first. And don’t hesitate to ask for help. You’ll be a far more effective leader for your team if you have someone listening, empathizing, and helping you, as well.
3. Provide Clear Guidance
This may be the biggest challenge for leaders right now. How do you provide clarity when the future is so opaque for all of us?
Much like offering help, this isn’t an all or nothing tactic. Just as you can’t fix everything, you also can’t provide clear guidance for every challenge ahead.
Instead, focus on what you do know and provide clarity where you can. You can’t predict what the economy will look like in a few months, but you can help your employees juggle competing priorities. You likely don’t know how your company’s strategy will change in Q3, but you can channel your team’s energy to strategic priorities as defined today. Find productive goals for your team, make sure their priorities are aligned to them, and communicate consistently and often about the path ahead.
Experts Aren’t Perfect
Even experts don’t have all the answers. Many of our foremost public health experts have admitted that they’re learning about COVID-19 as we go along. Their guidance hasn’t been perfect, and many policies have changed as we’ve gathered more information. And most of us understand that. We don’t see these experts as imposters; we see them as experienced people doing the best they can with the information they have.
The same is true of you and your team. They don’t need perfection. They don’t expect you to have all the answers. Be transparent with them about the uncertainty ahead and focus on being the leader your team actually needs: someone who listens with empathy, makes specific offers of help, and provides as clear guidance as possible.