When you want to help with uncertainty

While I will never get political in any of my writing, our current circumstances seem completely out of balance. These circumstances are creating significant stress and uncertainty in people’s home, families and organizations.

I have noticed a general sense that we went from an attitude of “we can do this!” to extreme fatigue, frustration and even resignation in the course of 7 months. Our economy is okay (some of you may disagree with me) but certain industries are struggling.

We continue to move toward automation that can eliminate certain jobs but there are new skill sets that will create new jobs as long as we provide opportunities to learn them. Higher education is being majorly disrupted to the point that people are not sure if getting a degree is worth the investment. People are unsure which discipline to choose to pursue in these times. Inside the virtual walls of organizations, some can’t hire people fast enough while others contemplate how long can they make payroll.

Put all of this together and you get mixed signals and unclear directions. I am very unsure as to what the future holds and how we will all pull through this. I have to have hope because the alternative is something I can’t fathom. Whatever the source of change and stress, there are a few things managers can do for their teams right now…especially, if you are in budget-cutting mode.

Set clear expectations.

I could write a whole book on this. The simplest action managers, at all levels, can take is to set expectations with each team member so they know their scope of work and what they are responsible for. I am always amazed how many professionals I speak to tell me that they don’t really know what they are on the hook for at work. They can describe their role but when I ask how they are measured, I get blank, virtual stares.

I have worked for several organizations where I had no clue what I was going to be measured on or, even at times, what my role was. The number of times where I found someone else doing exactly what I was doing would make a long list. So, I would do what I think added value all the while guessing if it was truly the right thing to do.

In the setting expectations department, managers need to stop doing these 5 things:

  1. Stop assigning the same task to different people to see who will get it done first. This creates animosity and territorialism…not to mention wastes time and money.
  2. Stop speaking in generalities about a role and get specific. Set clear goals with targets, deliverables and dates.
  3. Stop avoiding the performance measurement question; tell people what they will be measured on. Is it only the completion of activities or is there another measure like client service? Quality? Reduction in a process? Saving money? Being on time? The worst thing that can happen is someone gets a terrible review for something they had no idea they were supposed to focus on!
  4. Stop letting your team decide who should do what. This creates a Lord of the Flies situation where everyone tries and takes the conch. I have been a part of too many of these exercises and they always end badly with someone dominating and someone upset. Get input from your team but, as a leader, make the decision. Don’t put that stress on your team to do that for themselves.
  5. Stop avoiding feedback sessions where your team member needs critical feedback. Be kind but honest. Avoiding giving feedback does NOT help them. It may not feel good to deliver critical feedback but that is to help them. If your team member continues to go down the wrong road, that could impact their career at the organization. Your job is to help them even if it is uncomfortable for you.

Share what you can even if it isn’t much.

I always respected a leader who told me even little bits during times of great stress and change. Even if this person said: “We are figuring some things out and while I cannot share confidential information, I will let you know information when I am able,” I felt like they acknowledged the situation.

I have been laid off once in my career due to a start-up growing too quickly that they couldn’t sustain their growth. It is a terrible feeling to lose your job be it from a layoff, a firing, an unsuccessful experiment.

When I was laid off, the head of HR delivered the message to 12 of us at once. He had great compassion, didn’t mince words and let us know what our options were. He was incredibly professional and open to even being a counselor of sorts. I will never forget what a class act he was in delivering terrible news.

Do your thing to create value.

In uncertain times, sometimes all you can do is focus on your work and create value, whatever that looks like, in your job. It is easy to give up, resign to everything being out of your control and go lay on the couch and watch re-runs of Law & Order (even though they are totally entertaining). I can joke because I have done this. When I lost my job, I was devastated. I, in no way, thought this could happen to me.

The truth is, if an organization is struggling, it may be out of your control. So, don’t get sucked onto the couch, get your resume together, connect with others but also re-engage on your job. Do what you love and show how valuable you are. That is so much better than giving in. As a manager, help your people do the same.

Take stock.

Sometimes, times of stress and uncertainty can create opportunities to look at ourselves and what we want to accomplish. It also is not a bad time to list what you are grateful for. Anything you can make “certain” in times of ambiguity; take those opportunities to help you have some security in something…even if it may not be your job at the moment.

I have given my team advice about making gratitude lists and thinking about their career goals. Times of uncertainty can create those moments where we can do our deepest thinking.

Demonstrate empathy.

Back to my opening, these times scream for extra empathy. Even if you are not good at this, get better. Start just by making time to listen. People need a ton of flexibility during these times if the organization can allow it. Not all situations can be accommodated for but we need to listen and try to come up creative solutions. Whether it is time off to visit ailing parents, a flexible schedule to help a struggling teen with virtual learning or more breaks throughout the day to walk the dog to mentally break from stressful work. Try and do those things.

Everyone responds to stress and uncertainty differently. One of my favorite thoughts from a book (I have this in my phone) is from Amber Rae’s book: “Choose Wonder over Worry” — Not knowing is not stressful; that fact that we need to know is (mic drop). I think many of us struggle to know what someone else knows or to have 100% guarantee of something but that is not possible. We need to breathe and try and take action during times where we just don’t know what will happen.

As a manager, you can help your team by following some of above. Psst….these things can help you too!

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