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Leading With Empathy and Integrity

These are strange times to be managing people. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many managers are dealing with things they have never seen before. If you are one of those managers who has had to let some people go, are dealing with lots of uncertainty, or are managing people concerned about their jobs, their working hours or their benefits, these ideas may help you…

Managing in an Uncertain Time

Several years ago, during the dot.com era, I was managing a group of people based in several locations in the USA and Canada. The company we worked for was in decline and we had several rounds of layoffs. I had just let a few people go, and had some new staff whose managers had been laid off. There was no guarantee there would be no more layoffs and morale was very low.

Team Development

My new team consisted of staff from my original team and the new people who joined us. After months of uncertainty and the latest round of layoffs, everyone was feeling low and uncertain about what the future held. I decided to do some team development to help people get back on track and be more productive. I facilitated a team development session. We all shared some things about ourselves…who we were, some personal information, our experience etc.. I shared some information on the stages of grief, and the importance of developing resilience. We all shared how we were feeling about the changes and our hopes and fears. We developed a team vision to be more productive and generated ideas on how best to support each other.

What the Team Needed from Their Leader

The last part of the team development session was focused on what my staff needed from me, their leader, to help them be more effective and productive at work. They wanted just three things from me:

  • Share with them what the business priorities were, and to update them quickly when they changed.
  • Tell them what was going on in the company (good and bad).
  • Be honest with them at all times.

In uncertain times the rumor mill cranks up and misinformation is rife. My team looked to me to provide the clarity they needed. They needed me to be a steady presence in a sea of uncertainty.

Clear Direction

Clear direction from above was lacking. The management chain above me was focused on budgets, revenue, headcount numbers, and restructuring. They were not paying much attention to non-revenue customer priorities. As the leader closest to the customer action, I told my team what I thought was important, what was not, and resolved resource issues as they came up. I was by no means 100% sure I was always doing the right things, but my team needed direction and I gave them the best leadership I could. I’m generally a collaborative leader and this was stressful for me, but decisive leadership was needed at that time. Knowing they could count on me to be a decisive leader took some stress off my team and allowed them to focus on delivering to our customers.

One piece I thought was important was to measure the success of every project we did so we could show the value of our work to ourselves, to our clients, and to upper management. This turned out to be very important. At some point during the downturn my whole department was about to be let go. We were able to use the data we had collected on the value of our work to present a solid business case demonstrating our worth to our customers and to the company. At that point in time we all retained our jobs.

Openness and Honesty

During times of uncertainty the rumor mill is extra active, and the stories going around are seldom positive, or accurate. Some managers would “sugar coat” reality and then people would feel betrayed when things turned out badly for them.

I had weekly meetings to bring my team up to speed with what was going on in the company, to catch up with their projects, to give support and answer any questions they had. They wanted honesty and straight talk and I did my best to give it to them. As one of my employees said, “You may not like what David says, but you always know where he stands”.

Confidential Information

As a middle manager I was often told things by my management chain that could not to be shared. e.g. the running of some “what-if” scenarios that couldn’t be shared. Examples included things like “if we were to cut your budget by 20% what would you do? What projects, staff and customers would be impacted?”

I told my team there were three categories of information:

  • Things I knew and could share openly
  • Things I didn’t know and I would try to find answers for them
  • Things I knew and couldn’t yet share because of confidentiality.

When those things were no longer confidential I would share them with the team.

This approach seemed to be fine with my staff. They recognized that I wasn’t always at liberty to share everything I knew. I had some people on my team I had worked with for many years and really trusted. Even so, I was careful to share information with everyone equally. This let to higher levels of trust with all of my staff through uncertain times.

Consistency is Key

In turbulent times like now as we are reeling from the effects of COVID-19, leading with empathy and integrity is critical. Leading in this way helps your team do their best work. Anyone can manage when times are good. It takes a leader to manage effectively in times of uncertainty. Being tuned into what your staff needs and being empathetic to their personal struggles makes you a better leader and helps your team members do their best work.

David Green

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