What Your Employees Need From You Right Now

What Your Employees Need From You Right Now 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

For the amount of talk and training and coaching we’ve deployed over the years about change, you’d think we would be better equipped when big changes show up.

Maybe nothing would have prepared us for the collective gut punch that we are all experiencing right now.

I know that I certainly got knocked off balance by this thing. It’s hard to find your balance when things are shifting so quickly and dramatically all around us.

As I’ve been talking with people this week, one of the common themes has been “how can I help people through this?” And this is a really important question—particularly for employers. Here’s why.

Unless you are completely isolating yourself from the news right now, it’s hard not to feel afraid of what’s coming—virus, economic downturn, etc., etc., etc. Good news is hard to come by.

There’s a lot of fear out there. I published a post earlier this week titled “I’m Scared Too” to share my own feelings about what was happening and to provide some guidance on how to step forward in spite of the fear. When I wrote that on Monday, I was pretty unsettled and my emotions were pretty raw.

I felt compelled to write about what I was feeling as a way to model what it looks like to put your emotions into words as a way to process and move through that emotion. My hope was that maybe it would nudge others to talk about their own feelings as well. Writing that post was healing for me and it helped me engage more fully with the new reality we are facing.

The reaction to my post was interesting and informative to me. There was one thing that really stood out in the reactions I received.

We have a complicated relationship with fear.

Some people I heard from were grateful that I had talked about my own fear as it helped validate how they were feeling.

Others, mainly my friends, reached out with a message: “Are you okay?” For those who are concerned, yes, I am very okay. I didn’t realize that admitting my fear would trigger this reaction. It feels good to know that people care. These messages also hinted at something else I noticed this week.

There are a lot of us, particularly the dreamers and entrepreneurs and “change the world” types, who have adopted a belief that fear is a bad or toxic emotion. I even have a plate displayed in my office (that I painted) that says “No Fear.”

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share that one friend, after reading my post, said to me these two things: “Fear is the worst response” and “fear keeps us from living.”

It came from a good place, but I think it’s dangerous to talk about fear like this—especially right now. The “no fear” culture isn’t about fear, it’s about courage. And we need to be very careful with our language right now.

According to a Smithsonian Magazine article about the brain’s reaction to fear, fear “is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction, evolved over the history of biology, to protect organisms against perceived threat to their integrity or existence.”

It’s a natural human response that’s meant to help ensure our safety and survival. Fear isn’t good or bad. Telling someone not to feel fear isn’t helpful. What we need not isn’t an absence of fear, but rather an abundace of courage.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”—Nelson Mandela

Acknowledging our fear is okay. In some cases, you must acknowledge it as a way to move past it. To move past it, we need to feel a sense of control.

Back to the Smithsonian article: “That perception of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. When we overcome the initial ‘fight or flight’ rush, we are often left feeling satisfied, reassured of our safety, and more confident in our ability to confront the things that initially scared us.”

Once I wrote and published my blog post on Monday, I went to work on planning for two things:

  1. The safety and health of my family.
  2. The sustainability of my business.

This has involved some reading and education; conversations with my family, friends, and colleagues; and writing down some plans. The future is uncertain and that feels scary, but through these steps, I’ve found my way to a greater sense of stability and wholeness in the past four days. The fear isn’t gone, but I’m managing my way through and past it by taking purposeful steps forward, controlling the things I can.

My Advice to Leaders Right Now

As leaders of people, managing through the fear is our most important task right now. People are uncertain and afraid. Start with acknowledging the fear and validating that it’s natural to feel that way. This starts with you.

If you feel stuck or paralyzed right now, uncertain what to do next, that’s likely the fear. Being afraid is okay, but we can’t stay here. People depend on us, so we have to find the right next step. And don’t worry; there is no perfect next step. This is new territory. Do the best can, erring on the side of caring for yourself and your people. If you make a mistake, just back up a step and try something else. That forward momentum will help alleviate the fear. I promise.

The main thing right now is to find ways to help create a sense of control for your people. Give them agency in this experience so that they too can feel that sense of forward momentum that moves us out of and past the fear.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Communicate and educate like it’s your job (it is actually). Don’t assume what people do or don’t know—whether that’s about the virus, prevention strategies, how to work remotely, how to maintain social distance, etiquette for video meetings… Things are moving and changing so fast that I’m sure you are overwhelmed. Imagine how your people feel as they are even further removed from the decision-makers. You literally cannot over-communicate in times like these. When city and state leaders are holding daily press conferences to keep the general public updated, your frequency of communication needs to be even higher than that. Consider daily team meetings, daily one-on-one check-ins, regular email updates/briefings on anything that’s new or changing, etc.
  2. Recalibrate performance expectations. As we shift to work from home or different operation schedules, it’s time to step back and focus on what matters the most right now. Things that may have seemed important two weeks ago may not matter as much today. Spend time with your people to talk through their performance objectives and projects. Identify what is critical now, what is less important, and what can be put on hold for the time being. Also discuss and clarify behavioral and communication expectations. For example, in a remote working environment, how are we going to communicate? What kind of response time expectation should have of one another? As an example, with my teams in the past, we’d agree that email is for things that need a response in one or two days, instant messaging (like Slack) is for a quick question, and text is for things that need urgent response. The more clear you are in expectations, the easier the transition will be.
  3. Allow maximum flexibility (and grace). In this unprecedented time, people are trying to juggle things they’ve never encountered before. Kids are out of school, and  for some, there is an expectation of parents to “homeschool.” People who never have before are working from home. Self-quarantine has us isolating from family and friends. Our routines and lives have been disrupted in more ways than we can count, and it happened overnight. As leaders, we need to help people find their footing and establish a new normal. This is going to require learning how to manage a work/life mashup that most never wanted and didn’t choose. Now is the time to both allow and encourage as much flexibility as possible in terms of both how and when work gets done. Provide tools, resources, and support to people as they navigate this. And, perhaps most important, extend grace to your people. Help them understand what the mission-critical work is that must get completed, and then allow them some wiggle room to sort out their life. Be generous and forgiving. Now is not the time to be worried about how many hours people are working. Just ensure that the critical work gets done over the next few weeks. Then, you can begin to craft the new normal.
  4. Make wellbeing a part of everyone’s job. In stressful times, it’s easy to stop doing the things that help us stay well and healthy. We eat and drink more, we sleep less, we stop exercising (no time!), etc. On top of that, social distancing means we are likely to start feeling more isolated and disconnected. In a health crisis, allowing your wellness to suffer is perhaps the worst thing you can do. We can make ourselves less vulnerable to illness by investing time in our wellbeing. But your people may not feel like they can allow themselves time for wellbeing activities unless you make it part of their job. Give them instruction to set aside at least 30 to 60 minutes a day for some kind of physical or mindfulness activity. Encourage them to schedule a 30-minute check-in with a colleague or friend at least a few times a week. (My wife and I have started scheduling virtual happy hours with friends.) Investing a couple of hours a week to support the wellbeing of people is an investment in the quality of all of the other hours of the week.

Use the fear as a wake-up call. To emerge from this crisis as whole as possible, we need to take action now to help our people through it. Fear isn’t the problem; it’s a signal that action is required.

When this is all over and the pandemic has passed, people will remember how their organizations and leaders showed up. Did you prioritize their safety and wellbeing, even when it wasn’t easy for you? Or did you wait, leaving them in their fear not sure what to do next?

Those companies and leaders who step up now will emerge from this crisis stronger and with more loyal, committed employees than ever before.

Go now. Your people need you.

 

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