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Management in the Time of Coronavirus - Leading the Team Through Change

April 7, 2020
Leading the Team Through Change
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By Eric Wittekiend and Rebecca Oeltjenbruns, Center for Practical Management

In the first quarter of a typical year, leaders face any number of changes in their organizations: acquisitions, reorganizations, new product launches, new management structure. But the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new level of organizational change, combined with unexpected stresses at home.

Managers are critical to helping employees handle the worry, stress and anxiety they may be experiencing so they can move on to acceptance and productive engagement. But how?

It is natural in times of change for employees to have a variety of reactions, including denial, resistance and an urge to withdraw. Right now, these feelings are exacerbated by misinformation, frequently changing restrictions and constant media focus.

Worry, stress and anxiety are common reactions to change. Worry happens in the mind, stress happens in the body, and anxiety happens in both mind and body. In small doses, worry and stress can be positive forces in a person’s life. But it’s likely your team members are experiencing more than small doses at this time.

Open Up the Lines of Communication 

It’s important to remember that in times of great change, employees need two-way communication rather than just top-down messaging. Opening up the lines of communication also gives you visibility into employee reaction and response.

An October 2019 Raddon Research Insights’ analysis of nearly 1,900 full-time employees at financial institutions nationwide revealed the employees who grade their manager’s performance highly are much more satisfied with their employer and more willing to recommend their employer as a place to work. In the chart below, we group employees into thirds based on how strongly they agree with statements such as, “My supervisor does a good job of explaining the reasons behind important decisions” and “Communication is a two-way process with my supervisor.”

In addition, among institutions in the Raddon Viewpoint Employee Survey program, institutions whose employees grade their manager well perform better. Their return on assets is 28 percent higher than those who grade their management poorly. Their household balances are 17 percent higher, and their Raddon Performance Index (which measures profitability, growth and depth of relationship) is 11 percent higher.

Here are some activities designed to help you lead employees through change in the coming weeks:

Acknowledge Their Worries

According to an article posted by Harvard Medical School, research shows that just 8 to 10 minutes of writing can help calm obsessive thoughts. This quick activity can be done in a team touch-base call. Ask everyone on the team to write down their worries in 3 minutes or less. Sharing worries in this way allows people to know they are not alone; it gives voice to their concerns.

“I did the worry activity with my team today. During our virtual team meeting, we all took 3 minutes to write down all of our worries. We also analyzed which of these worries we can control versus those that we cannot. We spent the rest of our team touch-base talking through the worries. This process was reassuring to the team members and had a distinctively calming effect on everyone. Thank you for the suggestion!” -Marketing Director, Community Bank in New England

Encourage each team member to come up with at least one “next step” or action to take. This can be done in collaboration with you during an individual touch-base call. Allow employees an amount of time each day to focus on their worry. Once the time is up (say 10 minutes), consciously redirect thoughts. This could easily be incorporated into a morning huddle.

Focus on Right Now

Understand that right now much of the employees’ worry relates to their health and their families’ health. Don’t diminish or disregard that employees have already moved ahead in their minds to “what’s next?” That may be worries about layoffs or loss of wages due to missed sales numbers or quarterly goals. Remind employees to stay in the present. Think in two-week increments. What’s most important to plan for now?

As time moves forward, and the worst has abated, you can shift to having conversations about the “new normal” that will come after the crisis passes. Keep those lines of communication open.

Help Establish a Sense of Control

Make a list with each employee of things he or she can control and those which cannot be controlled. Do this during an individual touch-base meeting. This is a time when employees may share the stress being caused by Covid-19 on a spouse in the food service industry, a child unable to attend university or an elderly at-risk parent in their home. However, there are many things the employee can control, and seeing this on paper can often help manage stress, turning it more effectively to productive action.

Don’t Compare

Appreciate that each employee will experience stress differently, including the stress of working from home, not working at all or not meeting goals because customers or members are staying home. Also, be realistic with your expectations. If you’re asking people to work from home, find out whether or how it will work for each employee. Do they have space in their home for this? How will they handle childcare when children are home from school? What are their plans to limit distractions?

While you shouldn’t compare employees, encouraging them to share their best practices on managing these issues can help them cope with the stress, as well.

Your ability to positively and productively lead employees through change may lead to an unexpected outcome at the most unexpected time in our world: higher levels of employee engagement. If you don’t already do so, consider an employee engagement survey in the near future. Asking what you did well and where you could have improved demonstrates your commitment to deeper engagement with your most valuable resource.