How to Build Team Unity and Strength During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Mar 19, 2020 | Leadership

There is no denying that these are frightening, challenging, and largely unprecedented times. And, you would be forgiven if team building wasn’t exactly top of mind…but it should be. Right now, with many teams working entirely remotely for the first time, and people experiencing a great deal of uncertainty about their work and the economy, it is more important than ever for leadership and people managers to take steps to build, unite and support their teams. We need to try and approach this pandemic as an opportunity to make our teams stronger, more resilient, and more high-performing, as we work together through times of adversity. Read on for our best tips to lead in a time of crisis and bolster your team during the COVID-19 crisis

Acknowledge the crisis’s impact on mental health

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that this is not “business as usual” for many of your team members. For many, their world has been upended, through a sudden lack of childcare, growing concern about the health and safety of their parents or other elderly loved ones, or a generalized sense of anxiety about the state of the world. Create a safe space for people to share their feelings about the pandemic, and, if you’re comfortable, share your own emotional response too.

One sharing exercise that has been shown to bolster team performance is the “hero, hardship, highlight” conversation. You can prompt participants to share their hero of the pandemic (someone who has helped them out or whom they look up to), their hardship (the most difficult part for them) and their highlight (the silver lining, or most positive part of the experience). This framework may be helpful in structuring the conversation more positively, lifting the spirits of some team members.

Allowing yourselves to be vulnerable and open with each other will not only serve as a pressure release, but it will tighten the emotional bonds on your team, building a sense of trust that will last well beyond the pandemic.

Be Accommodating

Along these lines, it is important to be accommodating. If someone shares that they are experiencing intense anxiety or distress around COVID-19, it is important to hear them and make accommodations. Work with them, asking how you and other team members can help to temporarily lighten their load, ensure flexible work schedules, or simply check in with them when needed. 

Increase Connection, Despite Social Distancing

Even though your team is dispersed, you need to do everything you can to make them feel connected. Schedule additional check-in and status meetings, use video chat instead of text or email, and consider using a chat technology, like Slack, if you haven’t already. Seeing each other’s faces and having some of the more casual conversations that happen naturally when you’re physically in the same office will help to build a sense of cohesion and closeness among your team.

Collaborate in Real Time

One of the casualties of remote work can be collaboration, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Technologies like Google Docs and Sheets make it simple to edit documents together in real time, and group chats programs like Google Hangouts and Zoom make “face-to-face” group conversations a virtual reality. Make use of these programs liberally, so that you can benefit from your team members’ diverse perspectives and great ideas in real time, as you would in person.

Embrace the Stockdale Paradox

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind the Stockdale Paradox. In Good to Great, James C. Collins explains this theory as the need to balance realism with optimism. He recounts a conversation with James Stockdale, a US navy Admiral who served in Vietnam. Stockdale explained how he coped during his time in a POW camp:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

While this sounds like pure optimism, Stockdale explained that is wasn’t. Those who didn’t survive the camp, in his words, “were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale concluded, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

And, that, in a nutshell, is what we must do. We must believe in our teams, in ourselves, and in our ultimate success, but we must also recognize and confront the brutal and difficult facts of our current reality. Maintaining this dual perspective, with authenticity and transparency, will distinguish the truly great leaders during this pandemic.

By: Elissa Gurman

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