As we all experience the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people are feeling the anxiety of uncertainty. Perhaps it’s worries about their job or finances. Maybe it’s health concerns — be that physical or emotional health. Or it could be uncertainty about the future and what it holds. Where you are on the spectrum is your starting place; the challenge is how you move forward.
This is a defining moment
Know this: The way you and your organization handle this moment will define your brand for decades. People are experiencing the world differently right now, and while they’re all handling their individual situations in their own unique way, we all have a heightened awareness of how others are behaving. This puts a lot of pressure on leaders to make the right choices.
Much like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination, this is one of those moments in time that people will always remember, in part because it is a shared event, and also because we are all emotionally invested in the long-term outcome. This pandemic is unique in that it isn’t a singular moment in a singular location — it is a longer experience, more widespread, and will continue indefinitely into the future.
That creates a whole new level of anxiety, one that puts people in a heightened emotional state. And just as you recall what people have done for you when you’ve experienced other traumas or losses in life, your team is going to remember what you say and do right now, and in turn, they will use your response to this crisis to inform how they respond to your customers.
Rally your team with effective storytelling
Based on my research, people who survive extremely difficult situations seem to have two common denominators: belief in a cause bigger than themselves and a shared commitment to their team. As a leader, these are the attributes you want to be focused on building right now among your team members. And storytelling can help you achieve this.
Sharing stories of how others endured and overcame challenges is a powerful and proven tool. Maybe you have a personal experience you can share or a favorite story from history (reading biographies is a great way to learn about stories of endurance). One of my favorites is about Admiral Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking officer held in the Hanoi Hilton and was credited with saving the lives of other POWs.
In an interview with Good to Great author Jim Collins, Stockdale was asked how he survived the physical and emotional torture during those seven years of captivity. His response was that he never lost his faith that he would prevail and use the experience for something better.
Collins then asked the Admiral about the guys who didn’t make it. His response: “Those were the optimists…the optimists were the ones who thought we were going to be out by Thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving would come and go; Christmas would come and go. He continued: “The optimists would die of a broken heart. You must never confuse these two things. You have to be able to maintain the unwavering faith that you will prevail and face the brutal facts of your situation.”
We all want inspiration, but we also need to put forth realistic expectations. As a leader, you should give your team a dose of each. By being honest with them about the situation and the uncertainty it has created, you avoid putting them on an emotional roller coaster. Telling people the truth — that you don’t know what is going to happen, but that you have faith that as an organization, you will prevail — gives them something concrete to hold on to.
Build a solid emotional infrastructure
While there may not be an exact template for what we are experiencing right now, there are certainly historical examples of leadership that are useful in informing our choices. And they can teach us how to build a solid emotional infrastructure for our teams.
Right now, we aren’t having those all-important face-to-face hallway conversations and emotional check-ins with team members. This can make it difficult to gauge how people are coping with the collision of work and life.
As a leader, it’s crucial to remember that your team’s work-from-home situations can vary widely. Some are juggling work while also homeschooling children. Others are struggling with a partner’s job loss (or a partner who is now sharing their coworking space!). Still others may be caring for or worrying about a sick loved one. In a crisis, empathy becomes a super power.
To create a solid emotional infrastructure for you team, it’s important to remember that once we get beyond food and shelter, people have two fundamental needs: belonging and significance. People need to feel a sense of belonging (I’m part of something bigger than myself), and they need to feel a sense of significance (my individual part matters). As a leader, you have an opportunity right now to create both for your team members.
Leaders are belief-builders
Belonging and significance go hand-in-hand right now. You want people to know that they matter as individuals and as part of the larger team’s efforts.
One of the crucial jobs of the leader is to build belief. Help your team by amplifying the ways in which their work contributes to the greater good. Build the belief that we will endure this challenge, and belief in themselves. To do this, you must reinforce how your business makes a difference — what is your organization’s purpose that is bigger than just making money.
Storytelling can be a great tool here. Share concrete examples about customers and how your organization has helped them prosper. Yes, the balance sheet numbers matter, but those success stories build belief in people about who you are, what you stand for, and why it matters — it connects the head and the heart.
Check in with your team members, both as a group and one-on-one. Ask, “How are you doing?” and encourage people to be honest with their answer. Ask, “Is our work helping people? How? And what challenges are you facing with this situation?”
Now is not the time to suppress emotions; doing that will only cause people to eventually crack — and that inevitable crack might occur with a teammate or when talking to a customer. Listening and validating whatever a team member is feeling right now gives them the acceptance they need to carry on.
Controlling the things you can control
We are in that defining moment; for many of us, it’s the first time in our lives we’ve faced something of such great importance. Both your team and your customers are going to remember how you handled this situation, and it’s going to define you for the foreseeable future. This is a time to be proactive about managing your team’s thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. As a leader, you have more influence over these than you might realize.
You can create an emotion with the stories you share with your team, which creates a thought in your team member’s mind, which turns into an action that they communicate with your customers (who are also in an emotionally vulnerable place right now). Effectively creating this chain of events makes the sentiment that is being communicated to customers that much more grounded and authentic.
I often say, you don’t have to choose between making money and making a difference. Purpose and profit are connected. The data tells us: When you lead with the purpose, the numbers will follow. By taking action now to help your team feel seen while they weather this crisis, it will pay dividends in the future success of your team members and your organization as they interact more effectively with your customers.
About Lisa McLeod
Lisa McLeod is the global expert on purpose-driven business. She is the author of five books, including her bestseller, Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud.
Lisa has spent two decades helping leaders increase competitive differentiation and emotional engagement. She developed the Noble Purpose methodology after her research revealed that salespeople who sell with Noble Purpose outsell salespeople who focus on targets and quotas.