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Opinion: How to lead employees during crises

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If you were successful before the pandemic, it means you know what used to work.

Some of those strategies may still be beneficial in the future. Others won’t translate as well or, maybe, not at all.

A crisis such as this pandemic – where the effects are felt so close to home and the uncertainties are seemingly endless – can trigger fear, panic and even despair.

Leaders, then, have a formidable task. Set clear direction around the ambiguity, navigate the organization through the choppy waters ahead, and get employees to buy into new priorities or changes to work practices, systems or processes.

Some potentially positive trends also may emerge from this crisis. For example, we’ve already seen considerable increases in the use of online platforms for meetings, employee training, product demos and virtual sales calls.

Undoubtedly, there are efficiencies and cost savings from using online formats versus being somewhere in person, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

For example, in a March study by Cornerstone Institute for People Development, Senior Vice President Chirag Shah said, “We’re finding a 135% uptick in users of e-learning platforms and a 50% increase in online virtual training as a direct impact of COVID-19.”

The pandemic also amplified the need for remote working. The Global Workforce Analytics estimates that 25%-30% of the workforce will work from home multiple days a week by 2021.

I see new pressures on leaders who are unprepared for the strain this can have on working relationships, trust and resolving conflict.

Here are seven ways leaders can have a positive impact on employees in a crisis.

Candor. Paint a realistic picture for the future. Be honest about the crisis and what it means for the company and explain what employees can do to help secure the organization’s future. This action will coalesce people around a central purpose.

Transparency. Being honest about what you know and don’t know assuages the angst employees feel about the future. I’ve observed several benefits whenever a leader improves transparency. It strengthens honesty throughout the ranks and increases morale, while taking ownership of results improves. Transparent leaders forge strong relationships on a framework of trust.

Updates. Leaders reduce anxiety by letting people know how and when they will keep them informed. Regular updates stimulate employee commitment and minimize reliance on speculation and worry.

Commitment. For employees to take change seriously, they must see leaders serve as good role models for change. Consequently, employees often play a wait-and-see game, and if a leader’s commitment is genuine, it speeds up the right employee actions and attitudes.

Acknowledgment. Leaders should acknowledge the different emotions people experience during a crisis, such as anxieties over health issues, needs of family members or friends, and the various challenges that working from home can present. Showing a little patience and empathy can go a long way right now.

Listening. One manager I coached got upset when I pointed out his poor listening habits. He felt he was a good listener because he could remember what employees said verbatim. But a good listener doesn’t only recall what someone says. They also can relate well with people because they take sufficient time to understand someone’s desires and concerns.

Trust. Recently, a few leaders dealing with a remote workforce for the first time asked, “How can I know my people are working and not goofing off?” Show people that you trust them and provide the tools they need to work well. Then monitor their work based on results, not appearances.

There’s a lot at stake right now. People look to leaders for calm, courage and clarity for the road ahead. Effective leaders step up and find ways to be a positive influence in very challenging times.

Consultant, professional speaker and author Mark Holmes is president of Consultant Board Inc. and MarkHolmesGroup.com. He can be reached at mark@markholmesgroup.com.

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