Leadership, whether for an organization or for a project team, is always tied to one’s ability to adapt. Incidents like the COVID-19 pandemic add an entirely new level of adaptability. The essence of adaptability is taking on needed change that likely was unanticipated. This can something as small as having to learn new software to large-scale disruptions in revenue or suppliers. How a leader works through this with their team is often the key determining factor in their effectiveness. So, if such a weight is placed on how one manages something new then how does one prepare for it? Here are five key overall principles to keep in mind.
1. Don’t panic: This may sound like an obvious one but I’ve seen it get away from a fair share of leaders. Your team can sense how you feel in this regard so you have to carefully monitor your body language, tone, and words. It’s OK and even advisable to talk about unknowns with your team. In fact, you don’t want to look like you are avoiding talking about questions that seem obvious to everyone. In the end, this is one of the challenges of leadership. Even if you are in full-on concern you have to be careful how you show it. Remember, is it is OK to say “I don’t know but I’ll help find the answers.”
2. Over-communicate with your team: Don’t take for granted everyone on your team knows what to do or even has the same information. Change often means things are fast-breaking and if you are not on top of it critical segments of your team may not know everything they need to know. As the leader, you constantly have to be asking yourself “What does my team need to know today?” Setting up regular debriefings with your team so that they can share info and ask questions becomes critical to keeping everyone on the same page. When they feel informed they will project calm into the organization for you.
3. Don’t overpromise: Leaders who are high in empathy or people-pleasing will be tempted to say things or make promises they do not know they can keep. A fundamental practice during disruption or mass change is to take no actions that will hurt your trust with people. A worst-case scenario is promising something very big won’t happen and then it does. The ramifications of trust erosion from this are extremely hard to win back. If you do not know the answer to hard questions then it’s better to say so then to make a promise you can’t keep.
4. Don’t under-promise: This is the other side of the spectrum and ties in with the need for communication. This is another aspect people can sniff out and will erode their trust with you. Try to understand fully what basic truths you can share and share them. Remember, information is empowering and you want your team to feel empowered in disruption. Under-promising can lead to a lack of information sharing. Without information team members cannot make basic decisions with confidence and may freeze up. The culmination of this scenario is team members will ultimately believe the leader is hiding something. As with over-promising, it’s better to say you don’t know than appearing to dodge questions by under-promising.
5. Research, Collaborate, Delegate: This might seem like three but they are interlinked. As the leader, it is your responsibility to drive solutions. That doesn’t mean the responsibility falls on you to solve all the challenges. This is a subtlety I’ve seen trip up many leaders. A leader cannot have the best solution on their own in every situation. Leaders should practice their research skills and look for resources that can add insights. Leaders should also look into their networks for colleagues who are currently or have faced similar situations. Leaders should also delegate team members to collaborate with others outside the organization or do their own research. The more hands-on it the broader the input. Invite the team in to help solve what challenges they can. This will build team comradery and empowerment.
The bottom line is a leader can’t do it all by themselves. If they are afraid to reach out because it might mean sharing the credit for solutions with others then there are deeper issues to address in that leader. At the end of the day, the team or organization needs to rise to the challenge and can best do so in an environment of fair and open communication, delegation, and empowerment set by their leader.