In the last week alone, a record millions of Americans filed for unemployment following layoffs resulting from COVID-19 (coronavirus). Managers at all levels at businesses throughout the country are struggling with the same simple question: How can I lead my team through this crisis?

Whether or not layoffs and budget reductions impact the way your team works, the rapid and forced shift to remote work or alternative structures have likely revealed new questions about your management style. What does the team need to succeed, and what is your role in providing that?

Our team has worked tirelessly to help our clients navigate these tough questions. In doing so, we identified key principles at play for leadership at all levels who are striving to maintain authenticity while growing in flexibility during this crisis.

Start by Reexamining Yourself

Forced solitude and distance from your peers are perfect reasons to step back and reflect on your leadership to date. If you have deliberately worked to craft a leadership style and persona, look back on how well it has worked for you. Think about specific individuals under your management. Have they grown and excelled? What challenges have they encountered with or because of you? How did you get through it?

If you have never actively thought about a leadership style, that’s okay. But now is a good time to start. Take your natural instincts and try to articulate a few sentences about what you believe. Start with sentences like “Management is….” or “To me, management means…” Force yourself to think about past leaders you loved and bosses you loathed. Somewhere in the balance you will begin to identify your personal preferences in style.

If this level of self-reflection is too obvious or too straightforward for you, we recommend at the very least spending 5 minutes to identify what this new reality means for you in terms of a path through the crisis and concrete ‘next steps’. What are you able to control, and what is out of your hands? Orienting yourself at the very least will help structure your position in the process to come.

Prioritize Needs Across Your Team

Owning your own strengths and weaknesses will help you quickly pivot to examining the challenges facing your team. Some teams will struggle with communications and workflow. Others need new resources to maintain creativity and collaboration. Still others face more emotional struggles, like feelings of disconnect or isolation. The challenges range from highly functional to humanly personal; it is up to you to work with your team to understand what is most pressing.

No matter how you rank the identified needs, keep in mind that you do not have to manage the crisis alone. More and more leaders are turning challenges into opportunities to empower team members and troubleshoot collaboratively. A leader sets a vision and priorities but can leave the team creative freedom to accomplish their goals.

Especially for collaboration, idea sharing, and creative work, imposing structure on the team at this stage may do more harm than good. But setting expectations and getting out of the way can allow your team to explore and thrive – with modest oversight and check-ins.

Instead of micro-managing, you can use your leadership acumen to look for opportunities to maximize productivity where needed and reward good work when it shines through. Without having to deal with commutes, most workers find more hours in the day and, accordingly, more potential to stay productive. But, where incentive is needed, some companies are turning to weekly challenges of team-based contests to keep the camaraderie (and workflow) rolling strong.

Remember, navigating the crisis is about the big picture. Be judicious about where and how you flex your influence. Reward and praise what goes well, and course-correct only where needed. Ego has no place in crisis leadership.

Most Importantly, Be There When You Can’t “Be There”

Humans are social beings. Some need more contact than others, but as a manager it is up to you to figure out where that threshold is for each employee. Because forced camaraderie can feel contrived and overbearing, we pulled together a shortlist of tips to maintain authenticity while striving for the right level of support:

  1. Set the right tools in place to make “being there” even possible. Whether you turn to a platform like Zoom, Teams, or Google Hangouts for video chats, make sure the technology is sound and reliable (to the extent you can control it). If more sophisticated tools are needed, find them.
  2. Identify and offer online tools or resources. As a manager, you don’t have to be the sole provider of wisdom and skills for your team to grow. In fact, you shouldn’t be. Instead, be a connector to quality content and provide space for your team to learn or grow on their own terms.
  3. Set boundaries. As stated previously, remote work can actually lead to more hours, effort, and personal investment. So be there for employees by reminding them to take care of their personal needs, take breaks, disconnect where needed, and recharge. Model the behavior by taking your own personal day. In this case, be there for them by not being there at all.

At this point, flexibility in leadership is closely tied to adaptability. Many changes will happen whether we plan for them or not (and whether we want them or not), but we can navigate how we respond and evolve with them. Orienting everything back to essential, fundamental needs can help ensure you stay focused on what really matters.

Likewise, authenticity is something leaders have always struggled with even in the best of times. By following these principles, you can listen and assess what your team really needs and deliver it with empathy. Nothing is more authentic than that.

Andres Lares is the Managing Partner of Shapiro Negotiations Institute. He is responsible for the day to day operations of SNI. He also continues to provide negotiation training and serve as a coach with an emphasis on working with sports teams such as San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, Milwaukee Brewers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Brooklyn Nets. Outside of sports, his clients including companies from PwC to Boeing to Shaw Industries. He also has a focus in developing new initiatives such as interactive online training and virtual reality-based negotiation simulations and teaches one of the top-rated classes at Johns Hopkins University on sports negotiation. Twitter: @SNINegotiations; Facebook: Shapiro Negotiations Institute; LinkedIn: Andres Lares

Crisis stock photo by F8 studio/Shutterstock