Dear Dave: My employees are paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that we are lucky to have jobs, but my employees come to work, or connect remotely, and the pandemic is often all they talk about. The coronavirus situation is bad, and I will be the first one to tell you that it often dominates my thinking and the decisions I make. How can I motivate my employees when they are so fearful about losing their jobs and feeding their families? – T
Dear T: The first thing I noticed about your note is that you are more concerned with the pandemic’s impact on your employees than you are about its effects on you. This tells me a lot about your leadership abilities, and I admire you for being so outward focused during these trying times and not just concerned with yourself.
I wish I could put a huge mask over all of the fear and “pandemic pandemonium” that is going on, but the truth is, we need to do the right things and work our way through this huge challenge. Instead of playing the role of “victim,” we should assume the role of “conqueror.” We can’t worry-away this pandemic, and we must be tough and strong – setting a good example for others.
I am sure that when you accepted your management role, you thought that your biggest challenges would be getting targeted results, training workers to obtain needed skills, preparing and implementing plans, and – this is crucial – “being there” for your staff. Guess what? Those expectations have not changed, and your leadership and strength are increasingly needed by your employees. They must hear the truth and you must supply it.
We can’t “social distance ourselves from reality.” I really believe in the slogan, “We are all in this together.” Even if we are alone at home in quarantine, we can take heart in the fact that there are smart people all around the world that are working on COVID-19 challenges. This applies to the work world, too. We all must realize that working under fear is not a private battle; we have our work friends and colleagues who are going through what we are going through. I believe there is some relief in knowing that reducing our fears may often be “just a conversation away.”
I believe the pandemic has made managers realize they must be leaders, too. It is not enough for managers to hit goals – they must also be inspiring and [genuinely] enthusiastic every hour of the day. Managers must be strong and appropriately confident, and they must be cheerleaders and be believably upbeat. And managers must be “listening experts” by opening themselves up to hear employees talk about their doubts, concerns and fears. Being a leader is tough stuff and it requires tact, poise, strength, and sincerity.
Don’t run and hide
It is fair to say that there are legions of managers who will choose to hang “do not disturb” signs on their office doors and cower under their desks, just hoping nobody will ask them anything. However, I believe in those leaders who are truthful with their staff and define reality – but, do not unduly scare the heck out of everyone. The disturbing and sad truth is that no one knows what is going to happen as we work our way to a cure. So, I advise you to be honest with your staff, but to also be attentive to their emotional wellbeing.
A good practice for you would be to have a weekly staff gathering over coffee – let’s name it “COVID Coffee Community” (sorry, the best I can do) and surface all of the latest misinformation and rumors being passed around that may be nothing but worthless, fear-mongering rants from “nervous Nellies” – apologies to anyone named Nellie. I digress. I think these “gatherings” (don’t call them meetings) would dispel some of the fear-inducing myths floating around and, also, will help your employees let off some steam and maybe even laugh a bit.
Whatever you choose to do, do it in the name of regaining a sense of control and to lessen the impact of being controlled by the coronavirus. I think we all have mastered the doubt, panic and fear caused by the virus; it’s time to master our worry, anxiety, and anger. This is where your leadership skills are needed most. I think people would rather be disturbed by the truth than be falsely elevated by lies and fiction.
We are living in a time where we need more heroes and not more victims. This pandemic is a glaring reminder that we are all vulnerable and our world can be upended in a hurry. You must motivate your employees by first motivating yourself.
Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.