How To Boss Back Fear
Updated: Jul 15
As leaders, we are accustomed to challenge. It’s the nature of our role – some might even say we thrive on it.
This pandemic, however, has tested the most resilient among us. As one colleague put it to me recently – we are, for the first time, having to constantly live in the present. That means we can’t truly plan for the future. A great deal, perhaps most, of our business dealings and personal lives have been cancelled, and all prospective commitments feel like a big question mark on the calendar.
So how do we lead forward in these times of uncertainty?
Here are 5 things you can do now to survive and thrive in your organization:
1. Leverage a Business Mindset
Ask yourself this question: In a time of pay cuts, furloughs, and business model disruption, what problems will my stakeholders pay me to solve? Asking this will help you stay relevant and be viewed as a strategic partner.
A few industries are experiencing a windfall of growth, but most are suffering. If your C-suite colleagues are making cuts, you will be expected to do your share. It’s important to get ahead of the game rather than sidelined because you don’t make the right compromises. It’s more of an art rather than a science.
Consider this exercise: Think through where you can cut back without sacrificing essential functions, and be ready with your “crisis plan” (e.g. temporary cutback). Come to the table with a proposal before you’re asked (or told!). If cost reductions are necessary, being proactive helps to ensure you have a strong voice in the decision.
I recently strategized with one of my coaching clients, and we outlined his negotiation with his executive team. He proposed delaying a major IT implementation by 6 months – in exchange for an airtight promise that it would be in the 2021 budget.
2. Strategize Around Influence and Power
Having a strong network is key to being informed of current business challenges and revenue-generating strategies in order to align your strategic focus and stay relevant. Now is the time to double down on your network. Make a list of your top 5 internal stakeholders. Set up time with them every couple of weeks, and ask three questions: 1) What is their toughest challenge? 2) How can you help? and 3) What one thing can you do to be more effective in your role? This demonstrates many leadership skills (e.g., empathy, partnership, courage, and humility) that are always key to success, but become critical in a crisis.
3. Cultivate Presence
Some days this is easier said than done, but it’s important to boss back fear. The ability to remain calm and clear-headed while others are panicking or behaving badly inspires confidence in you as a leader. In times of extended crisis like the one we’re going through, publicly maintaining presence for long periods requires a foundation of mental fortitude and resilience. Let gravitas center you to act from a place of strength. Commit to a personal strategy for refreshing your energy reserve, through a deliberate practice of self-care. Get up and move between meetings, call a friend or work colleague to check in on how they’re doing, take a lunch break with your kids, listen to some of your favorite music. Set healthy limits for you and your team – don’t allow your flow to get sapped from too many Zoom meetings.
In addition to cultivating a calm presence for others, since your interactions and opportunities to show “you’ve got this” will mostly be online, it’s time to brush up your executive presence and home office tech to put your best foot forward. Good lighting, positioning of your camera to be at eye level, and a professional backdrop (or a good virtual one! But maybe not a potato ☺) are the basics.
4. Create a Culture of Safety By Meeting People Where They Are
A lot of people are operating in fear – for their physical safety, job security, personal finances. As discussed in this recent HBR article, we are collectively suffering from anticipatory grief – the loss of things to come. As leaders cultivating an ethical workplace, we know the importance of psychological safety and organizational fairness – required for creating a speak up culture. The pandemic and civil unrest have broadened our scope to encompass even more of an imperative: both physical and psychological safety are critical to healthy workplace culture. No one can focus on the work if this basic need is not met.
5. Be an Active Steward of Company Culture
While HR, finance, legal, communications and facilities are often the first functions engaged in this crisis, make sure you have a voice in the evolving company culture conversation. Who do you want your company to be when COVID-19 leaves the room?
As one CFO client told me today, “the biggest surprise has been our realization that we can run this company virtually.” While perhaps not a unique realization of late (depending on your industry), the striking thing about this company is that their culture exemplifies Silicon Valley workplace culture. Yes, like the TV show. Ping pong, dogs in the office, catered food, cold brew and kombucha on tap, frequent appreciation celebrations and in-person open Q&A with the CEO. If they close or substantially reduce physical office locations, what will it mean for this culture when it transitions to virtual? How does that impact employee loyalty, communication of company values, and a sense of community?
With the stay-in-place guidance and employees working from home, this team’s sense of purpose and morale was in a complete slump. In a strategic workshop, we reframed the team purpose to be one of creating community and connection, despite the physical distancing. And their ideas were off and running – virtual celebrations, rolling out an instant messaging channel, and mailing care packages to employees for key milestones.
I know I started off by saying we are living in the present and can’t truly plan for the future, but it’s important to start planning for what we already know will come next. There will always be another crisis.
Some things that I predict will be forever altered:
Intense scrutiny of business travel: We have mastered online meetings and many conferences have found ways to bring more attendees in with virtual events.
Conflict over what safety “looks like”: Once businesses start “re-boarding”, workplace conflict will increase over organizational and interpersonal health protocols. Workplace policies (like remote work) will need an overhaul.
Reliance on quantitative data (which will be easier to get) vs. qualitative (more difficult) – such as managing and rewarding employees for results (not perceptions).
The near-eradication of personal and professional boundaries: The increased lack of personal privacy from remote work may bring us closer, but also will increase employment risk from the eroding of professional protocols that can increase employee relations issues, such as favoritism, discrimination, or unfair treatment.
Leaders need to be thinking about these trends and how we do our job. What we do – providing value to our customers, doing meaningful work, and helping people and organizations do the right thing - will not change, and that will be our north star through this fog.
To spark inspiration, here are two great books I recommend for you:
For your strategy: Peter Sims' Little Bets brilliantly explains why the small discoveries are the ones that lead to breakthrough ideas. Reading this is guaranteed to challenge your thinking and encourage you to discover new possibilities in whatever you are engaged in.
For your team: This resource will help you be the inspirational, connected leader that everyone wants to work for. My friend Christopher Littlefield has just published 75+ Team Building Activities for Remote Teams: Simple Ways to Build Trust, Strengthen Communications, and Laugh Together from Afar. The ideas are creative, easy to execute, and cover every possible scenario where you want to strengthen team relationships, go deep on customer needs, or just get silly together (check out "Moving Troll").
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