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Engage During Times of Uncertainty

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Some events, such as COVID-19, can be a long-term crisis requiring long-term changes. During these drawn-out uncertain times, it is essential for leaders to distinguish the difference between “leading” and “managing.” Leaders need to show the way forward and instill a sense of energy and inspiration. Engage and inspire by reinforcing how the group is contributing to the mission and goals of the university, and what makes them a unique group.

Best Practices

Look for the “silver lining”

While many play defense during a crisis, there is an opportunity to be aspirational as well. Imagine that the adversity of the situation coalesces your team to rise to its absolute best. Think about how you may all emerge from this incident stronger, more engaged, and more capable than you were before. Creating such conditions means you need to reassure and encourage the team that “we can do it”.  Explore how you can turn these challenges into opportunities.

Maintain a sense of calm

During a crisis, create a sense of calm. People aren’t always at their best when under stress, but you can set the tone with your own behaviors. Think of yourself as representing ‘the calm.’ Focus on practical considerations and actions while reminding your team that you will get through this tough time together. If you need a safe space to share your worries or would like a thought partner on how to communicate with your team, please contact your Human Resources partner anytime to get support.

Emphasize personal interactions

People suddenly working from home are likely to feel disconnected and lonely, which lowers productivity and engagement. Leaders, especially if not used to managing virtual teams, may feel stressed about keeping the team on track. Under these circumstances it is tempting to become exclusively task-focused. To address these challenges, making time for personal interaction is more important than ever.

Keep everyone in mind

With some of your team working remote and others in the office, it may be easy to forget some team members -- “out of sight, out of mind”. To avoid forgetting about others, keep a list of the current core and extended team members in front of you while you’re working each day to help you make more conscious decisions about allocating responsibilities and information.

Ask emotion-based questions in your 1-1s

In times of uncertainty the human brain processes things emotionally. To help people with their anxiety, make them feel heard and help them sort out their thinking. Ask questions like: “How are you feeling?” “What’s on your mind?” and “What can I do to help help right now?”

Maintain and amplify team rituals

If you have 1-1s, team meetings, status updates, or team lunches, maintain the same routines (switched to virtual format, if needed). If you don’t have many rituals, consider introducing a few consistent touchpoints like a weekly update email or weekly virtual team standup. Rituals create a feeling of grounding that team members will look toward in times of change and uncertainty.

Co-create a communication plan

Ask your team to identify what should be communicated together as a team and who to go to for what. Then, create and share a plan. In your plan, name who to contact and what the decision criteria are. For example, if trying to decide if team travels should be cancelled, a decision criteria would be: “We will follow the CDC’s recommendations for now. On X date we will re-evaluate.”

Take care of yourself

Last but not least, make time for you. People sometimes allow a crisis to take over their lives and forfeit family time, meals, and exercise. Such decisions may feel heroic in the moment, but they aren’t good for you or the organization. Attempt to maintain balance in your life—you’ll be a stronger leader for it.


While there will always be growing pains with creating new ways to work together, focus your team’s energy on the long-term potential and opportunities of working together in new ways, and succeeding as a group.