Leading During COVID: What To Say When You Don’t Know What To Say
There’s one phrase I hear more than any other in coaching conversations with leaders right now: “I just don’t know.”
We lack clarity about where any of this is going – the virus, the economy, our lives, or our jobs. Just when we think we have a new normal it gets upended again with exploding cases or imploding economic news. It feels as if our country is on simmer, and we hope we can keep the dial in the right position to not have it erupt in a full boil.
For the first time in most of our lives, we can’t predict much of anything. And yet, from leaders, people are craving answers. People want assurances, direction, hope, and actionable information. For those in leadership positions, it can feel dicey to determine what to say when you lack certainty. You may even fear losing credibility or making things worse with the wrong information.
When you’re in this situation, it can help to have the actual words to form a place to start. While there are many helpful ways to respond from empathy, here are a few messages that can go a long way as salves for others in this moment. While they don’t provide certainty of the future, they do show certainty of support – something everyone can benefit from having.
It’s okay to feel worried or afraid.
The professional demeanor we’ve been trained to cultivate is stoic, even-keeled and positive. That can make it especially stressful when our internal feelings are exactly the opposite. Getting through the day can feel like an exercise in collective gaslighting: Everything is fine! I’m good! When leaders can normalize the anxiety nearly everyone is having, it takes away some of its power and frees up energy spent trying to maintain a perfect image. I’ve heard many clients remark at how inspiring it’s been to hear leaders present an unvarnished view of their own struggles.
I support you.
With workers rarely seeing each other live, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the organization. As one client recently noted, there’s not even office gossip anymore. People want to know that their leader has their back, especially when routine touch bases are harder to come by. This is a time for support to be explicit and underlined, rather than implied. It helps people to focus if they know that whatever happens, they won’t be hanging out there alone.
We don’t know how this will go, but we’ll figure it out.
The only thing we know is that we don’t know how this will play out. Even the most esteemed economic and public health experts admit the same. Anxiety feels awful, and everyone wants as much information as possible to alleviate it. Leaders can feel impotent against this reality – yet there is hope to be found. Let people know that while we may have few reliable answers, we still have confidence in our ability to solve issues as they arise. Playing three-dimensional chess against a complex unknown just keeps everyone on a vigilant edge. Instead, we do what we can with what we know at the time.
Find the learning.
Psychology tells us that people heal from trauma most effectively when they can find meaning from the situation. We are all trapped in a global trauma, and right now everything is still too present for most of us to figure out how to grow from it. On a smaller level however, we can find learning in our own situations. Leaders can help people to see the ways they can learn through this crisis. I’ve spoken to clients that have grown tremendously in engaging team members, showing agility, and connecting to purpose. If we can manage to find the space, we can pivot to the places where we can control our meaning. Leaders can play a big role in reminding people where to look.
Whatever happens, we’ll act from our values.
Many companies are either in the midst of layoffs or considering them. Business models are changing quickly. Reorganizations are commonplace. Even if your company is thriving, team members hear stories of their friends having Zoom layoffs and wonder when the other shoe will drop for them. While it’s never wise to promise absolute security, you can assure people that the culture and values will endure. Knowing that any changes will come from values like care and kindness can provide a bit of stability when not much else can be counted on. If your company’s values aren’t clear, be transparent about your own. I will approach any change with integrity and care for our people.
This will pass.
Scott Gottlieb, former FDA head, recently tweeted that this is a “hard moment – but it’s a brief moment in our long history” and we have hold on for 6 months until there’s a treatment or a vaccine. It was the first time in a while that I’d heard a well-known official actually made such a decisive statement about the light at the end of the tunnel, and it evoked a profound reframing for me. While we feel suspended in reality, this will end. Pandemics don’t rage indefinitely. In the meantime, people adapt and meet the moment. (I’m blown away at how quickly we went from watching in disbelief at the public health measures in China to watching my family adapt to the same.) Call it optimism or history, but we will get to the other side of this. And it can be a needed balm to remind others, especially when they can’t see it, that there’s another side to get to. We’re certainly ready.
This post also appears on Forbes.com.
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