CEO Insider

Managing Employee Fear During Times of Uncertainty

Eckart Tolle recently said, “Life unfolds between the polarities of order and chaos.” Needless to say, 2020 has been nothing short of complicated and chaotic as COVID-19 forced businesses to change their operations overnight to adhere to stay-at-home orders and protect employees.

This year has CEOs and leaders operating with no playbook, figuring out how to carry on despite declining revenues and customers. Leaders are working to maintain existing operations, move employees to a remote work environment and simultaneously determining how to make strategic long-term plans when nothing feels certain.

You may be feeling anxious, fearful and angry – and so are your employees. As a leader, how you manage these emotions will determine success moving forward. It is up to you to help your employees move beyond negative emotions and seize the opportunity within the heart of the crisis.

Understanding Negative Emotions

COVID-19 has caused soaring unemployment and economic uncertainty. Many organizations are trimming their workforce to stay afloat. It’s only natural that employees everywhere – whether they’re in a threatened industry or not – are feeling a slew of negative emotions. This is compounded by the constant flood of coronavirus speculation, uncertainty about a return to “normal,” and surging racial tensions.

To help teams navigate this whirlwind of emotions, leaders must first understand fear and where it originates. Put simply, the underpinning of fear is when we view something as a threat – and nearly every aspect of life during the pandemic can feel threatened, from our health and economic security to the state of justice in the world. Fear and its sister emotions of worry, anxiety, and apprehension also run high when we feel we have little or no control. Left unmanaged, fear will paralyze a workforce and lead to blame, unaccountability, decreased engagement and declining productivity.

Helping Employees Move Beyond Fear

Instead of ignoring fear, we can ask the right questions to promote an environment of trust and open communication. How leaders engage fear can be the difference between disaster and failure or creativity and innovation.

Leaders should engage in dialogue about what people feel threated by. In considering COVID-19, for example, many organizations brought their teams together to discuss how to best operate virtually. While employees could not control that their workday was changing, this did allow them to have a voice in how they work remotely. Similarly, in health care, many institutions came together to determine how best to provide telehealth, a technology that has been stalled for decades partly due to patient reticence. Ironically, fear of the virus actually propelled it forward.

Finding Opportunity in the Chaos

In May, Gallup published data indicating a strong relationship between job attitudes and improved business outcomes, including profitability, productivity, turnover and customer perceptions during recession years relative to other years.

What this means: The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging business leaders in unprecedented ways, but it also offers an opportunity to reinvent products and processes and use resources in new and more effective ways. Employees are poised to step up if leaders can engage them in the right ways. Start with the following strategies.

  1. Create a culture of emotional understanding. According to the Harvard Business School Online, emotional intelligence accounts for 90% of what differentiates high performers. Organizations and leaders who work with emotions rather than against them will enhance creativity, problem solving and innovation. As a leader, be sure you are staying connected with team members and don’t ignore your own struggles during this time. Keep a pulse on the workplace by regularly checking in. Some teams do a daily or a weekly emotional temperature check where employees are asked to share in three words what is happening for them in that moment and what they need from the team to feel supported.
  2. Communicate often. During times of uncertainty and anxiety, increase your written and verbal communication. Meet with employees more frequently, address concerns directly and manage the “rumor” mill by upping the number of meetings and email updates. Transparency is also important – be honest about what you can and cannot say.
  3. Develop a change-hardy mindset. The amount of change in organizations is increasing, requiring a different approach. Leaders need to take a global view and be agile. COVID illustrates why this is necessary – how many leaders had to scrap their strategic plans for 2020? Building strategies that are flexible and responsive can support change readiness. Leaders must also help employees navigate changes by regularly checking in with employees during times of transition and providing a clear vision of the future.
  4. Build resilience for yourself, your team and your organization. Resilience is the foundation of wellbeing, change hardiness and employee engagement. Consider tactics that support physical and mental health such as exercise, sleep, nutrition and work-life balance. Many organizations are using walking meetings as a way of encouraging physical resilience. You might also consider allowing individuals to tackle stretch projects that build mental capacity and allow them to focus on an area of passion. Performance is stronger when team members spend time and energy on work they enjoy. Additionally, allowing employees time to maintain collegial connections and build relationships in the workplace is vital. Virtual “water cooler” meetings or beginning team discussions with “icebreakers” can be useful tactics.
  5. Create new structures. The current environment requires that we do things differently. Leaders need to consciously create new structures and processes to support doing work in a new way. Identify what needs to change and engage the right employees in redeveloping or reinventing how best to proceed.

Great leaders push past fear every day, not by ignoring it, but by listening to it and acting from it. They use that information to guide them to the next best step. They demonstrate respect and build trust, not by ignoring the reality, but by actively addressing it.

Commentary by Dr. Laurie Cure, Ph.D. Here’s what you’ve missed?
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Dr. Laurie Cure
Dr. Laurie Cure is CEO of Innovative Connections, a management consulting firm. Dr. Cure is a consultant offering strategic planning, organizational development, talent management and HR support for organizational effectiveness. She is author of the book “Leading Without Fear.”

Dr. Laurie Cure is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.