Leadership in a crisis: You need to ask your team these six questions

leadership in a crisis

University of Tasmania lecturer Dr Toby Newstead. Source: supplied.

COVID-19 has drastically altered the nature of life and work. 

For some, it has meant the value of their work is finally being realised. Teachers, cleaners and health workers are finally being seen as the heroes they are. 

For many, it has meant the end of work. Unemployment, shut shops, stand downs and redundancies are off the charts. 

For those of us still fortunate enough to be employed, it has meant a total recalibration of how we work, with the vast majority of us now working from home.  

But, we are not just ‘working from home’. 

We are at home, living through a crisis, and trying to work. 

This has some profound implications for the way we work together, and especially for how we lead our people. 

Not only are we now leading remote, virtual teams, but we are leading remote, virtual teams through a crisis.

It has never been more important to connect with and care for your people. 

These six questions will help you navigate the conversations you need to have to lead your teams as they work from home through COVID-19. 

Asking your people these questions will help you understand them better. Listening attentively to their answers will demonstrate that you care. And sharing your own answers will help build trust and relationship among your team. 

1. What things are you dealing with in your home environment? 

In addition to working at home, some people are juggling home-schooling, children, pets, partners, caring roles and more.

Other people are totally alone. Not just isolated, but alone. Severe loneliness is a real thing, and can have serious impacts on mental health.

What are your people experiencing at home? 

2. What are you struggling with? 

If anxiety and stress were common issues before, they are running rampant now. Sleep issues, distractions, noisy neighbours, conflicting demands, task or role ambiguity, hardware issues — you have no idea what kinds of obstacles your people might be encountering in their home working environments, until you ask them. 

3. What makes your feel supported? 

There might not be much you can do to change the current situation, but by asking this question, you will give your people the opportunity to reflect on and articulate their answers.

And those answers may contain hints of things you can do — such as regular check-ins, simpler tasks, adjusted timelines.

Sometimes simply having someone take the time to ask questions and listen can create a sense of support. 

4. How do you like to communicate? 

Figuring out the ideal operating rhythm was tricky business pre-COVID-19. Now it’s even trickier, and even more important.

When and how do your people like to interact? Are there times they’d rather not be interrupted? Do they love a phone chat? Prefer email? Are they sick to death of Zoom?

Different personalities, environments and work patterns inform different communication preferences. 

5. What do you love? 

Finding solutions, bad TV shows, good wine, working out, reading, gardening, dancing, puzzles, learning something new, playing music, yoga, whiskey, family — our loves are diverse and often surprising.

Asking your people this question will give them an opportunity to reflect on what they love, which is an inherently uplifting exercise. It will also allow you to know more of their whole person and provide the opportunity for personal connection. 

6. How are you practising self-care? 

This one is important.

Employee mental health has been a growing concern for years. Now, as we live through this crisis, alone and isolated, we need to ritualise self-care.

Hopefully, your people are practising self-care. If not, by asking this question you might encourage them to begin doing so. Encourage your team to invest time and energy in looking after and being kind to themselves. 

Concluding tips

Think about the best way to ask these questions

Depending on your situation, it might make sense to ask your people these questions verbally (but virtually). Or it might make more sense to use this editable template, which will allow your people to reflect and write their answers as and when they are ready. 

Be the first to open-up

Some of the above questions might be much more personal than your current relationships with your people. These times are creating unprecedented spillover between the personal and the professional. I am not suggesting you ask any question you are uncomfortable asking, nor that you pressure your people into giving answers they’re uncomfortable giving. But, I do suggest you set the tone for opening-up. 

In our team, it was our leader who shared his answers to the above questions first. He did so openly and voluntarily. He told us personal things. He was honest about what he is struggling with. This set the tone and made it safe for the rest of us to share honestly. 

Ask your questions, then hold your tongue and listen

A great question is only as good as the space you provide for its answer. Even if you receive written answers to the above questions, you can make your people feel heard. Respond to them. Thank them for sharing. Validate their struggles. Acknowledge the things they love. And no matter what they are already doing, encourage more self-care. 

Don’t stop here

These six questions may get the conversation started, but don’t stop here. Keep the questions coming. Keep sharing your own story and struggles. We are people living through a crisis. We may be at home and isolated, but we can still connect. And it is connection that will get us through this. 

Top up your own tank

In order to look after and successfully lead your team through COVID-19, you must look after yourself. Before asking anyone else the questions above, have a go at answering them for yourself. How are you practising self-care? What are you doing to ensure your tank is full, and you are whole enough and present enough to guide, support, and lead your team as they live and work through this crisis?

There are myriad services available and there has never been a better time to use your employee assistance program, find a coach, or try talk therapy. 

Oh, and in case you missed it above, self-care, every dang day. 

Be well. Care deeply. Connect meaningfully. 

NOW READ: “I sat in the shower and cried”: The COVID-19 crisis is taking a toll on accountants

NOW READ: How to support the mental health of your people through COVID-19


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