How to Lead a Team in Times of Uncertainty

Business leaders reviewing documents at a conference table.

The world after the coronavirus pandemic represents many unknowns: how employees work, how companies protect their staff, which industries will recover and which will thrive. Unlike in other crises, organizations around the world have been forced into remote work immediately and with little preparation. In the webinar “Effectively Leading Teams in a New Virtual World,” organized by the SMU Cox School of Business, a panel of SMU professors discuss this shift to asynchronous working, and the wide range of tactics and practices required of leaders during COVID-19.

As a business leader, a crisis represents the greatest challenge to your leadership skills. COVID-19 and a climate of fear and unrest have caused many organizations to reevaluate their path forward. Leading during uncertainty also tests your skill in making difficult decisions. Many instinctively react with micromanagement and attempt to centralize control, which only undermines their authority at a time when leaders are facing economic disruption, issues in the supply chain, and concerns for employee wellbeing. The choices you make do not only guide the future of your organization; your choices directly reflect your empathy for your employees and customers.

David Jacobson, who moderates the webinar and serves as the Executive Director of Online Education and Professor of the Practice, makes reference to the uncertainty businesses faced in the wake of 9/11. He mentions Jimmy Dunn, founding partner at the New York investment bank Piper Sandler, who “realized he had to, every day, focus on team wellbeing. And in doing that, the team took care of the business.”

As you center efforts on your own team, you need to take stock of your resources and of the people around you. Consider the following principles that help create an effective leader during uncertain times: decisiveness, flexibility, communication, focusing on your mission, empathy, and adaptation.

Be Decisive as a Leader

A crisis is marked by rapid change. Normally, when a major decision is required, many leaders spend time gathering data and consulting all available opinions. COVID-19 has challenged all leaders to take initiative without much time for deliberation. That’s why great leaders take action even when they know they have incomplete information. Jacobson references management expert Tom Peters’s advice: “Ready. Fire. Aim.” “Don’t wait for perfection,” explains Jacobson, “act with the information you have. Every decision you make will be refined in battle, so to speak, and you adapt as more intelligence becomes apparent.”

Sometimes, necessary action can be unpopular. In a difficult situation, you may be forced to halt production and temporarily furlough staff. As difficult as those decisions may be in the short-term, the right decisions, especially about human resources, could help your company weather the storm and be more robust and ready to hire when clear skies return. However, organizations need to be thoughtful about how they communicate difficult choices. In the webinar, Maribeth Kuenzi, associate professor at SMU, cites the trouble with the terminology of “essential” versus “non-essential workers.” “I think that’s a poor choice of a word that companies are using,” Kuenzi says. “We have to be very careful, in times like this, of the language that we use and clarifying what we mean. To me, [nonessential] is meaning that you don’t have to physically work here, not that you’re not important.”

Uncertainty will force you to rely on every style of leadership to keep pace with unprecedented challenges. Your employees and customers alike will look to you to define leadership for the organization. Being an effective leader will require you to surrender old ways of thinking and devote more time to learning and developing new management skills. As Kuenzi points out, employees form “psychological contracts” with their managers, which is a belief that their organization owes them something beyond a paycheck. “What happens when these crises occur,” says Kuenzi, “is these [psychological contracts] can often be violated. As a manager or leader, you have to reestablish trust with your team.”

Be Flexible with Your Decisions

Rigid leadership tactics are antithetical to an unstable economic environment. Flexibility is needed in the way you make decisions during uncertainty. This is a time to think outside of the box. Would you need to change your purchasing rate, or should you change suppliers? Do you need to write new budget policies or create new ordering processes? Strategic planning gives you a potential roadmap to follow, while also allowing you to regain a sense of control. You may now need to conduct business in new and innovative ways, tapping resources you’ve never before used.

“People assume that what worked in an offline world will work in an online world,” says Arjan Singh, a webinar panelist and adjunct professor at SMU Cox of Global Strategy Consulting. “You have to adapt to this new reality. You’ll have to adapt the toolkit to use the communications that you do, how you’re managing project management, as well as some of the informal pieces. The first step of that journey is informing senior management of things that may not be working.”

Your leadership capability also depends on your ability to be flexible to the needs of your team. Perhaps your organization wants to experiment with remote work or a new social media campaign. Although you may be skeptical, this is a time to trust your employees to manage their own accountability. As Jeff Bezos noted in his 2016 letter to Amazon shareholders, “disagree and commit.” The goal of a good leader is not to force everyone to convince you, but rather to support employees and to be an advocate in change management.

Communicate Openly with Your Team

Misinformation can fuel anxiety and fear, which is why it is important to openly communicate with your team. As a leader, one of the critical communication skills is transparency. Keep employees abreast of the decisions you make as soon as possible. If you do not, they will speculate on what moves you will make next and the motivations behind them. Inaccurate information can chip away at the foundation of your organization, eroding it from the inside out.

“You do have to over-communicate compared to an offline world,” says Singh. He says the key is to make sure everyone has access to the information they need as they need it. Asynchronous project management tools are particularly useful. Many of these tools allow employees to remain in sync throughout the week, and they have the ability to centralize the flow of information, in the form of announcements, policies, and priorities.

Communication in uncertain times also needs to be bidirectional. Everyone can be a stakeholder in the future of your business. Invite your team members to share their concerns with you and actively listen when they do. This will validate what they’re going through and make them feel involved, which in turn, can quell their anxiety.

“Be vulnerable,” advises Kuenzi. “A lot of times when we don’t have control, then we tend to withdraw or we tend to try and over-control things. And so you have to let your guard down some and be human and let people understand that it is difficult. So we’re going to work together, and we’re going to get through this.”

Rally Around Your Mission

Especially in times of uncertainty, it’s critical to remember why you do what you do. Turn to your company’s foundation and its mission. No matter what product or service you provide, a leader keeps their employees focused on the core mission and how it serves a greater good. With succinct communication about the bigger picture, you create a sense of unity that makes it easier to push through the unknown.

As Jacobson suggests, “If you look at, in your team, all the things you have to address—people, mission, operations, logistics—spread that out graphically.” He recommends a “situation connectivity map” which allows a 360-degree representation of stakeholders and needs among your peers, direct reports, customers, and supervisors.

Singh offers another tool to keep everyone aligned. “It’s really important from the onset,” he says, “to establish some sort of a rhythm for your team so that you’ve got regular touch points.” He suggests that a leader should take some regular office practices and recreate them in the online work environment. “It’s very, very important just to keep communication going, and making sure that you’re all progressing forward on common goals.”

Lead Your Team from the Heart

Fear is a normal response to great uncertainty. You will feel it, and your employees will feel it. Repressing feelings will not bestow any competitive advantage; it will only exacerbate uncertainty. “You just can’t pretend the crisis isn’t there,” says Kuenzi, “nor should you go to the other side and just sugarcoat it. Empty reassuring statements are not helpful and they can hurt your credibility, or make your team think that you’re actually hiding something.”

The key is to acknowledge and accept how you and your team are feeling so that you can move forward together. Rely on your emotional intelligence. Your staff need to know that you see what they’re struggling with, and your senior managers need your example to lead others. Conflict resolution, problem-solving, and positive attitude are all top-down features of an organization: they start with you. This is the place for soft skills to shine. As Karin Quinoñes, an adjunct professor at Cox, notes in the SMU webinar: leaders need to “set the example. Don’t multitask if possible. Listen, care, check in frequently, and respond to requests for help. And above all, be patient.”

As you make difficult decisions for your company, your employees must make difficult decisions for themselves and their families. Let them know that they are a priority and are kept in mind with every decision you make. Remember: openly communicate. Employee engagement means much more than a check-in email once a week. It means keeping everyone in the conversation, it means maintaining trust, and it means showing your appreciation, even with a simple “thank you.”

Singh notes that he’s seen teams celebrate in unusual ways. “I’ve seen virtual teams where they’ve had virtual parties together to recognize people’s achievements, which have cakes delivered to their door so that everyone has a virtual cake party.” Recognizing achievements is a requirement for moving work forward, says Singh. “When you’re in an offline environment recognition becomes a lot more spontaneous, a lot more instant. But in a virtual environment, you do have to focus a little bit more on this.”

Learn to Adapt to Change

Change is not unique to a crisis, it is a reality of life’s fundamental uncertainty. Chances are, you will see success and failures throughout the course of your career. How you meet each challenge, weather every storm, overcome individual obstacles, will determine where you and your organization land after the crisis is over.

But the extreme changes precipitated by crises are likely to make many in your organization fear change. A good way to deal with this, according to Singh, is experimentation. “We’re just going to have a series of experiments to see if we could try doing something more differently,” suggests Singh, “and see if we can get some results from that. That tends to be a lower-risk way of getting people on board to embrace different ways of working.”

Singh highlights that strong communication cannot be overemphasized. “It’s really important to speak to them in their own terms so that they understand that you’re not trying to be threatening to their positions, but trying to figure out the best solution for the situation. You guys are in this together.”

Lead through Uncertainty with an Online MBA from SMU Cox

There is no handbook for dealing with change and uncertainty, but you can be better prepared with a solid foundation in business management skills. At SMU’s Cox School of Business, you’ll gain the knowledge and skills to tackle real-world challenges with confidence. Request information on our Online MBA program today.