Leaders and (remote) team behaviours in uncertainty

If you are in a position of leadership now, chances are you are dealing with a lot more than you had bargained for.

Thing is, you are not alone.

You are not the only leader in this situation, and you are not the only person. Everyone, at every level, is feeling the hit because nobody could have anticipated how deeply and thoroughly Covid-19 would have revolutionized our way of thinking and working – think hybrid time management alone.

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This crisis is creating a wave of disruption across all sectors: all of a sudden business models aren’t viable anymore and neither are supply chains. What’s worse is that we don’t even know to what extent things will return to the way they were before.

Part of being a leader, though, is also to drive others, to inspire them and to give them stability, structure and momentum regardless of conditions. And while it’s true that nobody could have predicted the impact that Covid-19 is having on us, it is also true that we have a history of studying ourselves under uncertainty and pressure, and we already know a lot about how we behave in very uncertain conditions.

Leadership also means bringing stability and structure regardless of conditions

In other words while the way Covid-19 impacts your business and market is unique, your behaviors and the ones of your team are not. So to make your life easier even in this difficult moment, I think it’s worth refreshing:

  • what behaviour you can be reasonably expect from yourself and your team members
  • what exactly lies behind this behaviour and 
  • what to do to address it in a more informed and appropriate way. 

Team behaviours under pressure

In general, whenever we face sudden disruption and change, we seek safety. It’s a version of our ancient survival instinct, our fight-flight-or-freeze response.

Now, seeking safety doesn’t only mean physical safety, it also means protecting and keeping what we own, what is ours and what we know.

And at work, this translates in making sure we safeguard our position. The best way we know to do so is by using our professionalism, doing what we do best, what we are experts in. That makes us feel professional, valuable and irreplaceable – which is exactly the feeling we crave.

Under pressure we seek safety in tools and routines we know, even if they are of no use

However, what we often don’t realize is that we will prioritize our need to feel professional and safe over our need to find a way out of the situation we’re in, we become self-centered and self-focused. For example, we will want to feel professional and safe to the point that we’ll use tools and routines that we are experts in even if we know we’d be better off trying something new, maybe teaming up with someone else.

That’s how strong this instinct can get, and if your team is all working remotely, chances are that physical separation will further encourage us to focus on ourselves and what we own.

What leaders can do about it

If this is the case in your team, and chances are it is to some extent – maybe just for 1-2 team members – your job as the leader is to:

  1. recognize and understand what is happening
  2. steer your team members away from their need to find safety by themselves by being the one providing them with a sense of safety.

As for the first point, knowing about this should enable you to at least recognize if any of your team members are following a similar pattern of behaviour.

When it comes to doing something about it instead, your best bet is to rely on two simple communication rituals.

The first one is a basic team meeting, and the second one is a one-on-one with each team member.

I assume you already have something similar in place, but I would like to share some points with you that may give you some additional perspective you could integrate in your strategy.

We find safety in the regularity and structure of rituals

First of all, it’s worth making explicit that the regularity of any ritual provides a rhythm, a structure to everyone involved, and we find safety in structures. In practice, this means to not only do your team meetings and one-to-ones always on the same date and time, but also to follow the same structure within the meeting. This way your team will find some comfort in knowing what to expect, which in a chaotic moment as this one is, is worth quite a lot.

Secondly, let your team meeting be more focused on tasks, and let the one-to-one be more focused on the person, on how he or she is coping and on how you can support this person. Focus on consolidating the relationship you have with your team member, or on establishing it from zero if you have none. Your goal is to become someone that each team member feels like he or she can rely on and trust.

We find safety in trusting our team leader.

As we’ve seen when we talked about building trust at work, research shows that trust is the key driver of both performance and good behaviour in teams.

And if now isn’t the time to double down on trust, I don’t know when the right time is. If you haven’t read that post, I suggest you get back to it.

Now, the case may also be that you don’t feel too comfortable going down this path. Maybe you never used one-on-ones, or maybe you are skeptical because this has never been your leadership style in the team. But remember that such a change of context calls for new ways and you can’t rely on your usual way of leading because that’s what you know and that’s what makes you feel safe.

Wrapping it up, you know your team members need safety more than anything now. They can follow their instinct, and try to feel safe by doing what they can to protect themselves, or you can be the one providing this sense of safety to them, and encourage them to be more connected to the rest of the team.

To do that, you have two weapons:

  • regular remote team meetings and one to ones, which will provide some regularity and structure, and
  • developing and consolidating trust with each team member.

If your team trusts you and acknowledges that you provide regularity and rhythm in these crazy times, you will still need to get the job done, but you will also know that you’ll have a high performing team that has your back, and it’s not every man for himself.

I know times are difficult, but stay safe, stay sane and care for each other. Thank you.

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