Supporting Your Staff Through Times of Uncertainty

This year has been full of surprises and uncertainty. A life-altering global pandemic, volatile economy, racial tensions and accompanying civic unrest, and an election year have led to a tumultuous 2020. The usual holiday stressors on the horizon are now paired with a national healthcare crisis that has no clear end date.

Everyone has been impacted by the upheavals in our society caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone has suffered a loss of some sort. This could be a loss of familiar routine, sense of personal safety, time with loved ones, or a family member who has become sick or died.

This collective trauma and the accompanying lack of clarity have presented unique challenges to management and leadership. How do you lead and support your staff through ambiguity and uncertainty? What strategies can leaders rely on to assist their teams during historic times and the inevitable stress that accompanies so much change?

Our recent webinar provides insights into the differences between managing and leading in a crisis. Read on for leadership strategies you can apply now as you support your team through COVID-19 challenges and change.

Be Honest

When employees do not have access to information or answers, they create their own reasons and conclusions. Without guidance or leadership, these conclusions can be based on inaccurate information, rumors, or their own fear and insecurities.

Ask yourself what your team is likely to conclude in the absence of information. Part of being a leader means shaping the narrative. You cannot do that without clear and honest communication.

The Journal of Employee Assistance discusses the concepts of trustworthiness and transparency as necessary communication frameworks for trauma-informed support in the workplace: “Organizations that operate with transparency communicate openly and honestly. They help both employees and customers feel informed and confident about policies, procedures, services, and expectations.”

Be forthright and do not wait for your team to come to you. When you do not have the information requested, genuinely acknowledge that you don’t know and pledge to find out. Then get back to your team when you said you would. You don’t want team members to guess or assume that you are withholding information.

Be Consistent

Employees have a lot to be uncertain about. We can’t control all aspects of childcare concerns, layoffs, holiday stress, racial tensions and civic unrest, or the multitude of variables employees are managing for work and at home

The antidote for uncertainty is consistency. You might not have all the answers or be able to share all you know, but you can reliably show up for your employees. Let team members know they can count on you as an engaged leader who empathizes with their struggles.

Be Unassuming

It’s a safe bet that everyone has been impacted by the pandemic but not everyone has been affected in the same way. One employee might benefit from working remotely, while another might find the changes required to work from home stressful. One employee may be isolating to prepare for holiday travel to see family, while another may be burdened with quarantining with an abusive partner.

If you do not ask, you will not know how individuals are feeling the impact of so many changes. The only safe assumption is that someone on your team is struggling in a way you do not understand and could not predict. If you manage a multicultural team, they may have perspectives and life experiences you have not readily considered.

Professors from Case Western Reserve University take this concept further by outlining how you can help team members communicate their needs by “coaching with compassion.” They use the acronym REACH to help managers remember to:

  • R — Resonate with your employees, connecting with their experiences.
  • E — Demonstrate empathy, feeling with your team and understanding their stressors because you have felt that way before.
  • A — Cultivate awareness of yourself and others, reflecting on how elevated stress levels affect your leadership ability.
  • C — Show compassion, which is like empathy but different because it involves a genuine desire to help your team (think empathy plus action).
  • H — Rely on humor and hope to inspire and cultivate a sense of safety and belonging.

Be Supportive

Focus on the improvements you can make and do your best to offer meaningful support. Listen to what your employees say with awareness that you cannot fix every problem.

Reflect on your company mission and vision statements. Do the same principles apply to how you support your employees? If not, you have an opportunity to ensure they do.

Balance this with the understanding that you cannot mitigate all the stresses your teams are facing. Sometimes the best support we can offer is to admit we are out of our league and refer to outside resources. As a leader, you can support your team’s use of and access to appropriate resources.

Be Open to Suggestions

Your employees were hired because they know their jobs and they know what resources they need to accomplish them. They also know their struggles and what supports they need to mitigate them.

Being open to employee feedback is important to get an accurate view of the current environment. By listening, you might realize that your understanding of your team’s needs is outdated and no longer accurate, or perhaps is not fully developed.

The best boss I ever had demonstrated openness with great success. I and other team members knew we could discuss any concern or idea with him and our feedback would be appreciated and considered. He was also quick to ask our opinion on any matter affecting our department, regardless of someone’s title or perceived status in the company.

As a result of his willingness to learn from his team, lines of communication remained open. His leadership style created an environment that nurtured creative and collaborative problem solving.

In contrast, I recall another manager who refused to accept new ideas that did not align with his understanding or desired goals. As a result, many team members were reluctant to bring problems to his attention over fear of retribution or a desire to avoid confrontation.

Instead of asking employees for their insight, he dismissed their ideas. In doing so, he missed opportunities to better understand his department.

Model Open Communication

Asking for feedback not only helps you achieve your goal of supporting your team, but also cultivates respect, fosters team building, and increases your ability to be an effective leader. Listening to your team will ensure that you are making decisions based on up-to-date information.

Lead by example and remind your employees that they can support one another through shifting expectations. Share how you are managing uncertainty to encourage employees to talk about their own self-care and mental health. Modeling behaviors you want to encourage gives your employees permission to implement those behaviors on their own.

There is a saying that shared pain is pain lessened. The same can be said of fear and uncertainty. Being honest, curious, consistent, unassuming, and supportive builds a culture that helps managers and employees weather whatever storm they’re facing.

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Cecilia Stonebraker

Cecilia Stonebraker is the owner of Stonebraker Counseling Services and offers professional counseling via telehealth throughout North Carolina. She is a licensed clinical addiction specialist and a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate specializing in substance abuse, trauma, dual diagnosis, and group therapy.

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