Leading In Unprecedented Times – Three Things to Do Right Now

Changes to the way we work are imminent, now and in the future, and the most resourceful leaders will see change as an opportunity to test new ways of working while embracing the challenge of the moment – to lead with certainty and conviction in a time of great ambiguity.

Business leaders are uniquely positioned to model calm, informed readiness right now – even as uncertainty reigns. The most successful leaders know that circumstances call upon them to provide a protective umbrella of psychological safety to their team as they weather current and future threats to the economy and typical mode of operations. You may be faced with tough decisions, but there are research-backed actions you can take to maintain some certainty, and to foster continuity in the way that your team operates even if current external circumstances (market threats, concerns about global public health, etc.) continue to evolve.

These priorities will keep your team engaged, motivated, and performing regardless of their physical location. The key to performance is human motivation, and an essential component of motivation is relatedness. As leaders respond to directives designed to create physical distance, they must take extra steps to ensure that each and every team member maintains a strong sense of relatedness with each other. This responsibility is on the leader, who sets the tone.

By following the three steps outlined below, you will build confidence in yourself and your team while actively cultivating relatedness. This will safeguard motivation and performance – meeting unprecedented times with extraordinary leadership.

1. Communicate Early and Often

The typical human reaction in a time of crisis is to ‘hunker down,’ ‘close ranks,’ and go ‘radio silent.’ This is a reasonable fear response to an imminent threat, yet one that paradoxically produces significant harm. At first it makes sense to keep quiet until official direction is provided. Leaders may not want to get ahead of (or contradict) official policy; they may feel it makes sense (and is just so much easier) to not say anything.

Leaders may be overly concerned about appearing ‘in control’ and ‘in the know’ and will therefore wait until they are certain of the direction before communicating to their team. Others may not want to bring the topic up (wishing it away or avoiding any suggestion of a crisis).

However, by not communicating, leaders may appear uncaring or unrealistic. Human brains have a strong negative bias: without information humans typically assume the worst. Further, leaders may overestimate team expectations of leaders having ‘all the answers,’ when in reality team members just want to feel connected and protected.

It’s far better to just share what you do know, and to build further credibility by being honest about the limits of your knowledge and the sincere intention to stay as informed and communicative as possible. Open communication solidifies your reputation and supports team morale. It also demonstrates care and respect for team members by leveling with them as professionals about a) what is known/what has been decided b) what isn’t known/what hasn’t been decided and c) when further information may be expected.

Humans crave certainty even under the best of conditions, but they do not expect leaders to be omnipotent. Rather they just want to know that the issue is given appropriate attention, demonstrating through words and actions that they are ‘on the case’; they aren’t going to hold an individual leader personally accountable if, understandably, external circumstances change.

2. Overcome Team-Threatening Distances

How much do you know about managing a virtual team effectively? Now is the time to enhance or refresh your knowledge.

Get to know the many types of distances that can result from managing a distributed team (physical (place and time), operational (team size, bandwidth and skill levels) and affinity (values, trust, and interdependency) and consider the impact of potential disturbances to the team’s shared identity and shared context that may result from an abrupt shift to mandatory teleworking. If you aren’t already managing a virtual team, it makes sense to start communicating how you will establish and sustain this ‘new normal’ right away.

Your highest priority is to mitigate the potential effects of affinity distance; if your team doesn’t already have a solid shared sense of identity, clear leadership and communication is necessary to lay the groundwork for this necessary element of effective remote work. As a leader, your role is to reinforce what is shared on the team: the team’s purpose – and to reinforce the fact that team members depend on each other to accomplish a larger goal.

Without a shared sense of team identity, conflict and misunderstandings among team members may increase, particularly during times of heightened stress. Create time and opportunity for team members to increase their knowledge of each other – not just personally but elements of their role including priorities, challenges, and information about their own teams. Along with a firm foundation of team trust, this knowledge will help team members give each other the benefit of the doubt when they cannot ‘check in’ physically with team members who used to be readily available.

To manage distance you will need to display enhanced communication skills and encourage others to follow your lead. Be strategic about communication and deliberate in using different communication channels based on the topic at hand. Remember that videoconferencing may be the ‘next best’ substitute for face-to-face conversations as opportunities to build trust and maintain relatedness. Openly share your expectations and establish team norms for utilizing different types of communication, including expected response times. Don’t assume that everyone is already ‘on the same page’ – your job is to get them there. At the same time, model and foster patience and goodwill among team members.

Remember that it may take longer than you think to adjust to a last-minute disruption in the way the team operates; as a supportive leader you set a crucial tone that may ultimately mitigate negative long-term effects on team performance brought on by these changes. If weathered smartly, this mutual experience may even solidify team coherence.

3. Prepare for Intentional Re-Entry

Every time the organization calls for a new way of working you must ‘re-form’ your team as a coherent, motivated, and high-performing group. Don’t assume that this will represent an easy return to the previous manner of operating.

Instead of ‘business as usual,’ team members will appreciate a ‘re-entry’ period where they get used to being together again. Remember that this may take time too. Cultivate feedback and open dialogue to discuss what worked and what didn’t work, which elements of virtual collaboration they would like to continue, and how they think this experience may impact the team in the long run. This represents yet another time for you to foster trust with your team members, and to model openness and genuine interest in creating positive conditions for them to do their best work.

Consider ‘re-setting’ the team dynamics through a dedicated team session; the priority here is to create a dedicated time and space away from the hustle of everyday activities to intentionally ensure the team is aligned after overcoming a major disruption to its day-to-day. This is a great opportunity to discuss the feedback you’ve received and reinforce team cohesion as the group moves into their next phase of operating. The key here is to not just assume that the team will come back together seamlessly, but to intentionally create the conditions where the team can realistically cohere once more.


Unprecedented times do call for extraordinary leaders. These priorities are a research-backed roadmap to distinguish yourself in challenging times by meeting the crucial needs of your team members. By prioritizing communication, overcoming types of distances (especially the crucial affinity distance), and being intentional about ‘re-entry,’ you can build relatedness and motivation – and therefore engagement and performance – of your team, no matter the external environment.

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