It's a Challenging Time for Leaders—Here's How to Maintain Focus during COVID

A global pandemic, a fragile economy, political and social unrest; these are tough times for leaders and those who work for them. As COVID-19 spread globally throughout March and April, a study by Mind Share Partners revealed that 42 percent of respondents felt their mental health had taken a steady downturn.

It's not surprising. Parents struggle to balance schooling their kids while meeting their jobs' demands all under one roof. Some even have the added responsibility of caring for an elderly relative or a special needs child. Isolated and alone, other employees struggle daily without the traditional social and family support they once had. To top it off, everyone is worried about their health. If they're not worried about their health, then the health of someone they love. Many people wonder if the economy can survive a downturn this drastic and what it may mean for their future financial well-being. So, who can blame anyone for feeling stressed, depressed, or anxious during this time of ambiguity?

Is it any wonder that leaders are proclaiming this era the most difficult they've seen in modern memory? With this in mind, does leading by example still apply? As a leader, how do you discuss low employee morale and marginal performance amid these unprecedented times? Do the rules of management and leadership 101 even apply anymore?

No one said it was going to be easy. But, here we break down a few key focus points that deliver great leadership in a time of great change.

Develop Trust

Two words never sounded so simple. Yet, it's exactly what's needed during difficult times. Right now, there are two ways to gain that trust from your employees. One is to focus on your behavior and be accountable. Never in your time as a leader will walking the talk resonant with your employees more than now. Do a self-awareness check. Are you doing exactly what you said you'd do? Are you listening? Are you offering employees the ability to voice their ideas? Are you following through when you said you would? Do employees have access to you remotely? Using all the technology available to you to keep a constant connection shows empathy and that you believe in those who work for you. Listen to their concerns and ask follow-up questions. Always make employees feel safe, even when you both disagree.

Be Kind

The second way to develop trust as a leader is to be kind. A Gallup survey indicates that fewer than 45 percent of employees believe that their employer cares about their mental health and overall well-being. While many see this as unfortunate during a crisis, you can change that within your business.  Believe it or not, kindness, compassion, and empathy are teachable. Not only is kindness calming, but it's also contagious, according to the Mayo Clinic and Science. A kinder, gentler approach during times of uncertainty goes a long way over iron-clad, tight-fisted management rhetoric. As we said, it takes time to learn to use kindness in a leadership role. But by being present when it counts and asking questions that evoke empathy, you can convey that you care about your employee's well-being. Besides listening, try these effective questions:

  • Are you okay? Simply asking shows you are willing to put yourself out there. It also allows you to look for signs of depression, stress, and social withdrawal.
  • How are you managing? Whether employees are single or managing online school from home, each type of employee has their own set of stressors. Validating that everyone has a particular set of challenges these days with schools and most daycares closed or with limited capacity conveys you understand their position and are always available to talk outside of normal working hours.
  • How can we help? If possible, offer mental health resources. Offer employees remote coffee breaks to share success stories or talk about home and work challenges that may be troublesome for them. Create a virtual support board for working parents that allows them to talk, share, and engage with one another so that they're not alone.

Above all, say 'Thank You." It's easy to forget that we're living in a different world now. It's a world that offers very little social activity like a concert, ballgame, or a play, and for a lot of people, it's inconceivable. So say "thank you" and say "I know you're doing the best you can" often and mean it. We're all giving up a lot, and kindness may be the single most undervalued soft skill in leadership one can find. It's the best type of investment that costs you nothing.

Deal with the 'Unknown'

Besides non-existent social activities and family gatherings, there are ways to move forward. But first, get people involved and engaged by asking for ideas. Ask them, "How can we do things differently during this crisis?" "What have they learned from competitors?" "How are other companies handling it?" Are their ideas something worth incorporating into future objectives? Ask people to be aware of changes happening during the 'unknown,' whether it's work or community-related.

Another way to combat pandemic fatigue is to invite experts to give talks about handling change in the time of COVID. Experts from a wide range of industries or careers can help with perspective. Understanding other peoples' experience during COVID can help ease isolation, frustration, and perhaps prompt ideas on how behaviors can alleviate stress.  After all, you can't control the big picture, but you do have control over your actions as a leader, something others can learn by watching you.


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