It’s crucial to lead during these uncertain times. Tim Spicer offers advice on how to best approach this topic.

As I type this article, COVID-19 cases are on a sharp rise again, jeopardizing public health and business stability across the country. By the time this article is published, confirmed cases could be declining, holding steady or exploding. Many businesses report that their employees are hurting, anxious and uncertain of their future.

This uncertainty brings focus to a multitude of challenges for business leaders. Americans hold out hope that life will soon return to “normal.” The truth is, even after COVID concerns die down, history tells us that a new threat will arrive to increase pressure on businesses and personal lives. So how do we continue to stay positive and improve our leadership skills? How do we keep our businesses moving forward during times of uncertainty? The answer is simple, but the real-life solution is quite challenging.

The COVID-19 season has stretched and pulled us in so many different ways. It’s hard to picture what life was like before the pandemic. It’s difficult to comprehend the stress and trials business leaders have consistently been through since early March. Business leaders across the industry have dealt with similar challenges of decreased revenue and constricted cash flow as they have attempted to keep their employees healthy and happy. How do we keep our teams moving in the same direction during a pandemic? How do we keep business moving forward when the entire world is shut down? How do we keep our own sanity while we have to make difficult business decisions almost daily? These are all questions I’ve asked myself numerous times in 2020.

The truth is, we are smack-dab in the middle of a “100-year flood,” and there is no clear indicator of when things will ease up. As difficult as this season has been for all of us, it gives us a unique opportunity to learn, grow and improve our leadership skills. It forces us to improve the functionality of our businesses and look for new revenue streams. We will eventually come out of this pandemic with a better understanding of what it means to lead.

If this COVID season has made anything abundantly clear, it’s the importance of clear and consistent communication. Employee concerns about personal health, job dependability and income stability have increased abruptly. Initially, during the early stages of the COVID outbreak, I sent out updates to my team two to three times a week as we revised our business operations and updated our safety protocols. As things continued to unravel, I soon realized I was not communicating with my team often enough. The world looked vastly different each day in March and April, and employee concerns grew and spread quickly. Employees questioned the virus spreading and the uncertainty of state and business closures. I soon realized the need to release daily updates in order to reassure and educate our employees. During the onset of a crisis, employees are hungry for any information that pertains to their jobs and their near and distant future. Initially, I was so concerned about giving misinformation that I waited until I had complete answers before informing my team. Eventually, I recognized it was important to seize early opportunities to share all available and relevant information instead of waiting to deliver the “perfect” message at a later date. This is especially true during a crisis, when information can change drastically each day and any perfect message could be completely wrong the following day.

It’s important to understand that communication is a two-way street. During a crisis, anxiety levels increase, tensions rise, and a simple staff disagreement can derail business strategies and team cohesiveness. Give your employees plenty of opportunities to safely express their emotions in a controlled environment. This can tamp down on employee gossip and unproductive conversations. Show your employees that you care and have their best interests in mind. The need for this became evident with our team early on. Our employees had a lot of valid concerns as we were updating our business strategies. I needed to remember to slow down and listen during stressful times. This simple step can have a serious impact on the productivity of a team when we need them most. Remember to be realistic with plans, goals and timelines when communicating. In early March, I often heard leaders call this a “brief” and “temporary” situation. I often heard things like, “This is a brief downturn in business,” and “We will bounce back quickly.” Although encouraging, this can be dangerous rhetoric when it comes to communicating with your team, as overpromising can break down trust and derail employee motivation. True recovery is usually not a sprint; it is often a marathon across hills and valleys. Be encouraging about the future, but do so with realistic expectations. As plans change, clearly inform employees of the changes as soon as is feasible.

Often, one of the last things business leaders think of during times of uncertainty is their own sanity. Practically overnight, working hours can double or triple. I, like many others, spent almost all of my hours working on how to keep business and revenue flowing and failed to focus on myself enough. It’s easy to become overwhelmed at the sheer magnitude of daily decisions. Sleep can be sparse, diets can change and anxiety can rise sharply among leadership teams. It’s important to remind ourselves of the importance of mental and physical health. It’s imperative to give ourselves enough time and attention to deal with rising anxiety so we can calmly lead our teams.

Overall, it’s important to understand that we are all in times of uncertainty together. We are all doing what we think is best. We are all working as hard as we can, and we are all making countless difficult decisions. The important thing is we keep trying. Don’t give up in times of uncertainty. Fuel those feelings and concerns into a will to improve current circumstances.

As I worked through this article, I realized I was speaking directly to myself. These are absolutely challenging times for those looking to lead with grace. I have personally struggled during this season and doubted my abilities. But it’s imperative that we don’t give up!

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