3 ways to motivate your team when they are dispersed, working remotely, and reacting to a crisis

Any one of the three situations described in this headline would need careful communication and management to introduce and do well.

In the coronavirus crisis, people who lead teams have to manage all three.

It’s a huge undertaking, there’s no doubt about that. But there are things you can do to create connection, calm and cooperation. 

The first few days of ‘staying home’ have probably been filled with fire-fighting, tech set-ups and other basics in our day-to-day hierarchy of needs. Shock and denial are typical elements this early in the change curve, and can actually help as people ride the adrenaline of such a big change.

But next week will be different. You’ll be building a new rhythm for your team, and they will need your leadership more than ever.

Before we get into the three golden principles, we want to check in with you. You’re leading your team through a time of crisis, but you are experiencing it too.

This is not a time for great pride or unkind standards for yourself. Yes, of course you will want to show your team that you have a steady hand on the tiller – but don’t be afraid to reach out to your peers or your own line manager for the support you need for yourself.

In fact, it’s time to rethink your job completely, if you can.

For the coming weeks, you will add greater value by focusing entirely on your team rather than on tasks. If you can, delegate the usual project management (schedules, performance dashboards, targets etc.) to someone in your team who can do that with flair. (For some, working with data and process creates a welcome certainty.)

Give your focus to holding your team together, motivating and supporting, and being ready to lead everyone forward again when the time is right. Your greatest value will be in creating a sense of connection even while people are experiencing isolation more than ever before.

Here are those three golden rules that will underpin everything, and give you a huge headstart in providing the leadership and the engagement your team needs:

1. Always remember that people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.

It’s an old saying in crisis communication but, my word, it stands the test of time for good reason!

You’re not dealing with team assets, you’re dealing with humans – and humans are emotional creatures.

Even though we each know that what we’re all doing right now is for the greater good, at our very heart we naturally worry most about our own personal fears.

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to get emotional, or cross boundaries into counselling! It simply means that when you show empathy to your team, they start to have their needs met. And when that happens, they trust you more and their focus on work is given more brain space.

There are two simple ways to check that you are doing this (and obviously this is just the whistle-stop version of a very big subject!).

Firstly, think about your team members’ individual concerns. Don’t assume that you know, or that their issues are the same as yours. If in doubt – just ask them what they’re most worried about!

I’ve seen many managers in crisis situations over the years assume that provided jobs are safe, everything is okay. That might be the case for you and your team. However, they may be really unsettled by the loss of their social/work structure and all the creativity and support they draw from that. They might be worried about their project being interrupted, and what that will mean for their return to the workplace in the coming weeks. They might be in a promotion process that now feels under threat. They might be afraid that this hiatus will damage their performance review.

They might have a whole list of worries, and worried people are unhappy, disengaged and unproductive.

Just ask them. Don’t wait until you have all the possible answers. Just ask them, listen to them, show that you care about more than today’s task list. And keep that dialogue going, because sooner or later, you WILL have the answers they need.

And that leads nicely to the second way you can test your ‘care versus know’ approach. If you find yourself starting a conversation along the lines of “I need to let you know….”, just pause. Switch to starting a conversation along the lines of “I know you’ve been worried about…..” and start there instead. It’s a simple filter, but it will make a big difference.

2. Be incredibly vigilant about the way you communicate.

By this, we mean being very careful about the format you use.

Even if you are usually found in whatsapp chats, email threads and written notes, this is a time to get more personal. In a normal world, conversations about someone’s personal concerns would be done face-to-face – but now we need to use tech to do that or find the next best thing.

The greater the concern for an individual, the more personal the conversation needs to be. So a conversation about their job, for example, should be 1:1 and preferably on FaceTime or Skype so that you both have some visual cues in the conversation as well as verbal.

And even if it’s just a weekly check-in, which might ordinarily work really well by email, think about switching to a phone call so that you maintain some human contact and create the flow of a genuine conversation.

(In an upcoming post, we’ll also talk about how to alter your approach to get the best from introverts and from extraverts! But for everyone, make sure you have a regular touchpoint that is human and not simply written.)

3. Accept that these are not normal times.

Working from home is old hat to many, and those of us who are well used to working in this way will tell you how great it is usually – peace and quiet, flexibility, lots of freedom to be really productive.

And one day, it will be like that again.

However, it isn’t necessarily like that right now for your team. They may not have figured out the routines and rituals we all used to get us into this rhythm, this way of working (we’ll be sharing more on that topic too).

Their structure has been shunted out of kilter with little notice and little preparation. Their children are home. Their elderly parents need help. All the usual networks that make life run smoothly have been put on pause.

They are suffering from the cognisant static (posh term for mental noise) that comes with major change. This can reduce our power of rational thought by as much as 80 per cent at the best of times – and right now we are not going through just one change. This crisis affects our jobs, our children, our parents, our social networks, our plans, our holidays, our homes….everything!

So our last golden ‘rule’ is to accept that work rates will not be normal either. Accept that people will do their best, and do all you can to help them do just that.

But if it is true that in a crisis people show you who they really are (and I’ve been proven right on that many times over the years!), then this is your time to show your team the kind of leader you are.

And when it comes to recovering / rebuilding / just getting back to normal, the kind of leader you are will make all the difference to your business and to the individuals in your team.

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