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Katie Best

KatieBest Associates

Leadership Consultant & Coach - Helping Leaders Solve Their Messy Problems

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How to lead through uncertainty in a virtual world

By adopting five strategies, leaders can help ensure their team's engagement, performance and wellbeing remains strong.

From Brexit to the recent covid-19 pandemic, circumstances have shown that as leaders, we can never be certain about our business environment and the way things are going to be tomorrow, a week or a month from now, or even in five year’s time. Leaders focused on how to lead in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environments are therefore becoming a critical resource for companies. 

As leaders, we must realise that despite all our planning, there will always be some events that we would struggle to anticipate. Our skill as a leader increasingly depends upon how we cope with such events, and once we are hit with one of the biggest challenges of our lives, what we do next.

We are living, and leading, through times of great uncertainty. With little idea what governments – and therefore businesses and citizens – will have to do next, leaders have an important role to play in maintaining their own, and their team’s, effectiveness, motivation and wellbeing. No easy task? But as a leader, there are known actions you can take to help yourself and your team work with and through high levels of uncertainty.

Giving the team critical opportunities to bond will help them to feel connected, and to see that there is the certainty of empathy and niceness amongst other uncertainties.

1. Demonstrate exemplary communication skills

The better your communication is, the more secure your team will feel. There are three main areas to focus on here.

Firstly, use face-to-face communication wherever you can. Whether that is in person or via video. This makes communications more effective and feel more personal. In particular, it makes your messages seem clearer and more certain because people can use your body language and facial expressions to read what you are saying. It also increases the sense of human contact, which can be critical for reducing stress in times like these.

Secondly, set very clear expectations, guidelines and boundaries for work. This will help your team be sure of what they are doing and increase a sense of certainty for all of you. 

Thirdly, don’t let small talk drop. During times of uncertainty (and particularly now when we are all mainly working online), small talk can often vanish as we face up to the immediate challenges at hand.

As a leader, you should encourage lighter chat, alongside business, to reduce feelings of isolation and anxiety that your people may be feeling. This could include some friendly conversation at the beginning of a video conference; sending out a social email (‘what’s the best TV programme you’ve watched this week?’ or ‘what non-work things are you doing at the moment?’); or just phoning someone for a check-in chat.

Giving the team critical opportunities to bond will help them to feel connected, and to see that there is the certainty of empathy and niceness amongst other uncertainties.

2. Re-establish and maintain team norms with your team

In changing times, it’s useful to check in with your team to see how they want to operate as a team. You will have organically established ways of doing this when you are in the office – team processes, team rules and team culture. 

When changes happen you will want to check that these are still going to work, and/or develop some new ones. How will your team acknowledge one another’s work? How will they let others know if they are facing challenges that they need help with? And, if you’re suddenly working online, when will you communicate, how, and about what? 

You can always change the rules and routines again further down the line – organically or intentionally – if they are not working. 

3. Trust your team to get on with it

Research shows that when motivated people are measured on output (quality and volume of work produced) rather than input (hours at their desk) they are likely to be more satisfied with their job and to view their leader more positively. The trust may even prompt them to work harder. In these uncertain times, this can play in your favour. 

Firstly, you can focus your attention on solving problems or challenges arising from the new normal, rather than feeling as though you have to be standing over someone’s (digital) shoulder with lots of monitoring. 

Secondly, you can improve your ratings as a leader and your team’s motivation to do a good job. There’s an obvious caveat, of course, that if you have workers who were already disengaged from their role before this period of uncertainty, you will need to work more closely with them to check that they are fulfilling the requirements of their role. But where you can, by focusing on output, and remaining flexible and nimble on how to get there will help you and your team remain calmer and more able to focus on the tasks at hand. 

Despite all the challenges, we are likely to find strength, creativity and new and useful ways of being in and amongst the rubble.

4. …but check in with even the best team members regularly 

A critical role for a leader to play at this time is to check in with individual team members frequently. By giving them the chance to ask you questions, and showing an interest in them, you reduce the uncertainty for both of you. You also create a safe space for them to share any worries or concerns that might be getting in the way of their work, or affecting their wellbeing.

Thinking in terms of team members suddenly working from home, for example, you might want to ask them questions about how they are feeling – are they finding it OK to schedule work around their children? Are they finding time for breaks to stretch, exercise, and eat well? 

Helping them to avoid overwork, burnout, or a serious downgrade in their physical and mental health is a role that you should be playing as a leader. You might also want to check in regarding how comfortable they’re feeling with using the hardware and software they’re now relying on, and whether there are any tasks that they are struggling to do from home? 

Make it clear that you are there for them, and they will likely repay you with their trust, motivation, and honesty about problems so you can help to head them off. 

5. Seek feedback, reflect, be prepared to be vulnerable, and go again

In uncertain times, you will routinely be pushed outside your comfort zone. So will your team. So will just about everyone. You will be as new to many of the tasks you’re doing, as will your boss, your team and your peers.

You are unlikely to get everything right the first time. Ask for feedback from your team, peers and boss. Take time for self-reflection. It’s a great way to model the calm, self-reflective behaviour you would like to see from others.

Remember that you are not expected to be a superhero, or even a hero. Your vulnerability, showing where you are struggling and demonstrating that you are reflecting and working to do better will all show your team a way of being that is authentic. And, importantly, if you feel as a result of this as though you and/or your team need support, ask for it from your HR team or your boss. 

These are unprecedented times for us all, and your team, as well as those who are there to support you, will appreciate your candour and your desire to get it right.

What now?

Uncertainty is, by its nature, very hard to predict. When this period of volatility will end is very hard to say. But what I can say confidently is, that despite all the challenges, we are likely to find strength, creativity and new and useful ways of being in and amongst the rubble.

For example, I fully expect that some teams and leaders will become so proficient at working remotely, their companies will start to wonder why they’re paying so much money for office space and furniture. There are some critics already talking about how, for some, this may represent a transition to a new way of working, with a positive impact on the environment, too.

But as I’ve considered above, that won’t be the case for everyone – at least not immediately. We’re all going to need to help one another, and leaders have a key role to play. 

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Katie Best

Leadership Consultant & Coach - Helping Leaders Solve Their Messy Problems

Read more from Katie Best

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