Leading Through Difficult Times – Team Effectiveness

Humans are relational beings and social at heart – and, recent circumstances have challenged this more than any time in memory. Throughout much of the World, we have been forced to change how we live and work. Not everybody has been affected in the same way, but everyone is affected in some way. 

How we work as teams is perhaps most impacted. One of the primary responsibilities of the leader is to ensure their teams are working collaboratively and cohesively, to complete projects successfully together and to accomplish stated goals. In these difficult times, many of the best practices that involve natural, personal interactions have been tested, and leaders are having to adapt and learn new ways to manage their teams and keep them healthy and effective. 

All indications are that this is not a short-term challenge. In the coming months, as restrictions begin to loosen up, there will not only be the physical necessities to keep people safely separated, but we will be dealing with a wide spectrum of feelings and attitudes toward how we work together depending on individuals’ comfort levels to get back to ‘normal’. Right now, it’s hard to imagine even within the next couple of years we will be fully interacting as we did in the pre-Covid world. 

At Building Champions, we have the benefit of combining nearly 25 years of experience coaching successful leaders and executives – through the best and worst of times – with the ‘real-world’ experience of our CEO Mentors and Executive Coaches. We believe this gives us a unique perspective. What we see is that the fundamentals for how to lead effective teams have not changed, it’s more a matter of focus. 

We see three main areas for that focus – Connection, Prioritization, and Communication. 

Bridge the Connection Gap

Many teams have been forcibly disconnected, scattered to work remotely so that the usual organic interactions are disrupted. Even in ‘essential’ businesses physical distancing measures have become an obstacle to peoples’ need to connect. Leaders need now more than ever to act with purpose and intentionality to ensure their team members feel like they belong. 

The most important priority for leaders is therefore to show Empathy. The ability to demonstrate that you understand how they are feeling right now – whether it is anxious or angry, exhausted or just emotionally confused – is key. Your experience may not be like their experience, but you build connection and trust by showing you care. When asking them how they are, don’t take “FINE” for an answer (“Feelings Internalized Not Expressed”) – probe further to get to the real story. 

And use Creativity to keep connections alive; we’re all getting used to technology and the tools available to us – virtual team meetings don’t need to be boring, there are plenty of great tools available with whiteboards, chat features, quick polls and goofy backgrounds. If you’re not the most creative type, lean on someone on your team who is, and let them run with it! 

This relates to the need to maintain a sense of Community. We all have an innate need to feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves to perform, and as the leader you must intentionally nurture this. Schedule time for no purpose other than social interaction – virtual Happy Hours, themed events, even introduce trivial games. Be courageous about this and don’t fear failure – people can laugh about an event that flops. Learn from it and try again – it’s all part of the fun!

Re-assess Your Priorities

A critical part of the leader’s role is to ensure team members are working on the most important projects and tasks to drive progress toward your stated goals. The recent upheaval has probably thrown everything into question – so as the leader you must stay crystal clear about what’s most important – in the short-term and long-term.

Start with your Current Reality. This has likely shifted at unprecedented speed, but you need to stay on top of the priorities – the financial realities, the people, your resources and operational effectiveness – and you need to be brutally honest with your team as to where things stand. No sugar-coating the challenges; full transparency is required in these times. But add hope where it lies and focus on the victories no matter how small.

Now more than ever you need to keep your team focused on the Short-Term priorities. Get agreement on what the 3-5 goals are for this week, for this month, but no more than 30 days right now. And, with this clarity, hold people accountable to their commitments. Again, quick wins feel good in these times; celebrate them and move on. 

And if you have your longer-term Strategic Bets or key initiatives defined, it’s time to reassess what’s still of critical importance. In light of your new current reality, what are those few strategic priorities you must keep the team’s focus on and keep resourced because they are essential to whatever future lies ahead of you?  These are the crystal balls you cannot drop; the others are rubber balls that will bounce (you can pick them up later). Your success in leading through this crisis will be determined by whether or not you were able to keep up the momentum on those few strategic bets so they still have a chance of paying off. 

Exercise New Communication Muscles

To drive greater team effectiveness a leader must double down on their communication skills right now which will mean exercising some new habit muscles. Communication has to be transparent, clear and very frequent.

Leaders have to show up with full transparency, vulnerability even, as they communicate with their teams. Share with them how you’re feeling about what’s going on, more so than you typically dare, and it will build greater connection and trust. Don’t be afraid to let your team see how you’re struggling with current reality, and that you don’t have all the answers. In this environment of uncertainty and ambiguity, “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable response. Swallow your pride; it isn’t doing you any favors right now. 

You need extreme clarity in how you are communicating too. Your team is probably distracted with the conflicting demands of home and work life and feeling bombarded with a barrage of information—mostly negative—from all sides. Be sensitive to the fact there is so much noise today. Know your audience when you video call, email, or text. If you can know the style preferences of the team member and adapt how you communicate (speak their language as it were), you will help them be more effective. 

And finally think about the most you could possibly be connecting with your team, then double it, and it’s about right. Since people are disconnected, the frequency of your communications must increase. Keep the same cadence of team meetings, one-on-ones, project reviews, etc. you are used to, but add intentional, informal drop-ins via whatever means you can – just like you would if you were together. Team members can get very lonely very quickly working remotely, so stay in frequent communication.

All of these may seem like increased demands on you as a leader. It’s hard, I know, but stick to these areas of focus and you will see the increase in effectiveness you need both for you and your team. 


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