Supporting Your Team During Times of Unprecedented Change

Posted in News Story

By Monisha Kapila

March 24, 2020

Monisha Kapila is founder and CEO of ProInspire, which designs and delivers programs and resources to help social sector leaders build the competencies, confidence, and connections to accelerate equity and leadership. She is also part of the Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership faculty.

In a little under two weeks, people across the United States have realized we are in a moment of unprecedented change as we face the Coronavirus pandemic. At ProInspire, we have been using this moment to create space to support each other, shift work responsibilities considering many unknowns, and give ourselves grace to pause work on some things that may no longer be possible or important. 

Here are some actions leaders at all levels can take to support their teams in this time of unprecedented change. 

  1. Build and maintain workplace community—we need community now more than ever: As individuals implement social distancing measures, we realize how much we crave social connectedness. Workplaces are one of the most important communities we have in today’s society, and creating a place of emotional safety is critical. This means adjusting work policies, encouraging people to share their fears, and recognizing that different individuals may need different things from their community. Leaders need to live into their equity values and shift to more inclusive and adaptive decision-making by lifting the voices of people with less formal authority, giving staff more autonomy, and considering the equity impacts of decisions. Treating each other with humanity in the workplace is critical, especially in moments of crisis. 
  2. Recognize the psychological process people go through in times of change: In our work with organizations going through major change (for example, a CEO transition or race equity change process), we often reference the Bridges Transition Model , which helps organizations and individuals understand and more effectively work through the personal and human side of change. According to Bridges research, change is external: it happens to you even if you don’t agree with it, and it can happen very quickly (as we are experiencing right now). Transition is internal: it’s the psychological process people go through as they come to terms with the new situation. Transition happens inside of your mind when you face change, and it can happen slowly over time. Leaders need to show empathy and recognize that each individual will go through their own transition to adapt to our new reality.
  3. Support people through the “messy middle” of change: According to Bridges, the neutral zone is an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. We refer to this as the “messy middle,” which is certainly where we are in organizations and as a society right now. During this stage, people feel disoriented, unclear, and anxious over the future. With the Coronavirus, these feelings are amplified by the many societal implications: Will there be a recession? What if someone I care about gets sick? Can I afford the health care costs if someone gets sick? How can I work when my kids are not in school? Throughout this period, it is really important to open up regular communication across the organization. Individuals in positions of authority should model with authenticity and humility in communication. Informal communication is also critical during this time of change and remote work. It is okay to admit that you don’t have the answers, but share information often and name the anxiety that people may be feeling. 
  4. Prioritize self-care, not productivity: American work culture prioritizes productivity and efficiency. During this time, many organizations need to acknowledge that less productivity is okay. The constant state of stress and uncertainty literally triggers emotional and physical reactions in our brain. People do not have the emotional bandwidth to work at the same pace that they may be used to, and that is okay. Leaders should prioritize self-care as a workplace norm, not something to do on your personal time. Organizations that are on the frontlines—such as direct service providers, hospitals, and clinics—also need to prioritize self-care to ensure their staff can handle the long arc of this pandemic. Ask people to prioritize their self-care, model that yourself, and talk about why mental health is particularly important during times of stress.
  5. Respond with support, not discrimination: Coronavirus does not discriminate based on race or ethnicity, but we know that Trump’s comments and incidents of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans has grown in recent weeks. Organizations need to create environments that actively fight xenophobia. As this virus expands to every state in the country, many organizations will likely have an employee who is personally impacted. Leaders should respond with support, not discrimination or “othering”. If a colleague or their loved one needs to be quarantined, consider how your organization can be part of their support system to get through this difficult time. Humanity in the workplace means taking care of each other in sickness and in health.  

It is hard to imagine how life will change when we are on the other side of this pandemic, but I hope that this will lead to shifts towards more humanity, empathy, and self-care in our workplaces.

Join us to chat more about supporting your team during this time of unprecedented change. Register here for the lunch and learn on Wednesday, April 1st from 12-1pm ET. 

Additional articles in this series, Leading in Times of Hyper Change, can be found on our website, Facebook and Twitter.

Current articles in the series include: