How Can Leaders Support Their Teams During Turbulent Times?

From a global pandemic to worldwide protests, from climate catastrophes to the current devastating situation in Ukraine, to say the past couple of years have been challenging would be an understatement.

These world events are understandably affecting our teams. With them adding to the everyday stressors of employees’ personal and work lives, it’s no wonder so many of our team members have gone well beyond their coping ability.

Are you a leader who is overwhelmed with how best to support your team while also feeling impacted by these challenging times yourself?

Take a moment to breathe deeply and then read on below…

Put your self-care first

In the event of an emergency, flight attendants instruct you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Well, it’s the same in the workplace: you can only take care of others in moments of crisis if you’ve taken care of yourself first.

Good leaders encourage self-care within their teams but often neglect practicing it themselves due to perceived time constraints or believing that admitting their vulnerability equates to being a less competent leader.

In reality, the opposite is true. Regular self-care is said to reduce stress, increase productivity, and build empathy. An effective leader knows how to regulate their own stress levels and emotions in challenging moments so that they can help their teams do the same.

When it comes to self-care, different strokes work for different folks. For some, it could encompass morning meditation, for others physical activity, a creative outlet, or even a moment of connection with a loved one. Whatever works for you, showing that you have taken time to care for your emotional state sends a strong message to your team to follow your lead.

Setting up team processes for working through hard times

Words of support are important but people also need actionable advice and strategies to help them build up their emotional toolkit in periods of distress. That’s why it’s a good idea to develop a program of readily-available resources and activities that help to relieve stress and increase connection such as one-to-one mentorship, webinars, and group discussions. These practices establish psychological safety in the team, fostering a belief that expressing their feelings and fears will be welcomed.

During these times boundaries must be set for teams that are already overloaded. Call a team meeting to establish team priorities and what projects and goals can be set aside for a later date. The same should apply to each team member – work with them on a plan of what they can realistically achieve and what they need from their colleagues and leaders during this time of difficulty.

Be attentive to teams’ diverse ways of expressing and processing trauma

Trauma and stress manifest themselves in multiple ways and there are many different coping mechanisms. So, the question is, how can a leader effectively respond to each team members’ individual reactions?

The best way is to encourage openness and an open-door policy, making sure to offer both group and individual check-ins. They should know that there is always space to discuss their issues while simultaneously not pushing them to share if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Some may be expressive and want their leader to act as an emotional sounding board, others may want to carry on “business as usual”. Both reactions are okay. These check-ins should not just be a one-off but offered regularly to show that they aren’t just gestures done out of duty but come from a genuine place of care.

Here are a couple of specific examples of the best responses to an employee exhibiting certain signs of trauma:

  • If someone is feeling a loss of control, re-establish a sense of control by asking “what can you do right now, even something small, that will improve the situation a little bit?" and giving them two options to choose from.

  • If someone is experiencing terror, calm them down by saying "I see that you are anxious and overwhelmed/disconnected. It is a natural response to trauma, a normal response to an abnormal situation. It is ok to ask for help when you are worried or anxious”

It’s OK to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and confused as a leader about how to best guide and support your team through times of crisis. Hopefully, with the above tips, you have a few more tools in your arsenal to navigate these tricky waters.

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