It’s never been easy to lead a team through moments of tension, particularly in a year with as many tense moments as 2020. Even when the tension isn’t specific to work, it shows up in our workplaces—and, if not channeled constructively, takes a toll on relationships, productivity, morale, and mental health.
Supporting team cohesion during times of turmoil falls to managers who may not have ever planned or trained for the task. Our Nov. 19 workshop on how to manage teams through tension brought together four executives with a wealth of experience and advice to share. Watch the full replay by clicking on the image above, or read on for a recap of the top tips from our panelists.
Banks Benitez, co-founder and CEO of Uncharted
At Uncharted, a social impact accelerator based in Denver, Benitez has led his team through cash crunches, strategy pivots, an organizational rebranding, tension with the board, the departure of co-founders, rounds of layoffs and pay cuts, and now a pandemic. Based on his experience, he recommends the following to other leaders:
Avoid the temptation to overpromise. During tense moments, “I used to make lots of promises to our team that things would get better,” Benitez says. But he quickly learned to quit doing that, noticing that “a promise oftentimes feels like the cheapest and easiest way of encouragement, that once we get to X,Y, and Z, then we’ll be able to hire again,” for example. Instead, he says, “I’m trying to make fewer promises, but to make them be more specific. The consistency of communication is far better than inspiring communication. In moments of tremendous instability, consistency trumps, and I think will always be more important and powerful, than trying to be really inspiring or to make big promises.”
Deputize people on your team to be cultural leaders. “If it’s the CEO or executive team that’s the one that always has to be a ballast and drop anchor amidst these turbulent times, there’s a lot of pressure on those people, on me and our executive team.” So the senior leadership began asking others in the organization, “What does it look like for you to be a cultural leader in this moment?” As a result, “in moments of uncertainty and instability, we have a team of people who are willing to step up at every level of the organization” to help hold things together.
Expect tension—and then plan for it. “The quantity or metrics around conflict ought not to be ‘are we having conflict?’” Benitez says. “When a team in a year like 2020 tries to do something courageous, there’s going to be conflict.” To navigate it, Banks and his team have written “user manuals” to explain to their colleagues how they want to receive feedback, the types of things that might trigger them, and how they want to navigate around tense moments or challenges. “I think that planning for conflict is not done enough, especially in a remote context,” he says.
Focus on what’s essential. Uncharted recently moved to a four-day work week, which forced everyone to get a lot more ruthless about their priority lists. “What should I deprioritize in order to prioritize the most important work is a conversation that is not happening often enough,” he says. Making it ok to let some things go, or to settle for “good enough” on things that don’t have to be “great” can give people breathing room, which is always appreciated during a tense time.
Siobhan Brunwin, people director at MullenLowe Group UK
At the integrated marketing and communications agency MullenLowe Group UK, Brunwin is urging managers to find balance in everything: between being vulnerable and being strong, between making plans and staying adaptable. Some of the advice she shared:
Flex your style. “In those [tense] moments it’s about showing your organization that you are in control. At least make short-term plans,” she advises, although “let’s be honest, most of us were making a lot of this stuff up because we’d never lived through a pandemic before.”
Be vulnerable, sure—but only up to a point. “We don’t want to have every conversation with your team ending up with you sharing really deep, personal things. But I think showing glimpses of that is vital.”
Understand what people need. There’s never been a more important time to listen to your teams. Do you have the skills for that? “I read something yesterday that said if you weren’t a very good manager before the pandemic, you’re probably not going to become a better manager afterwards,” Brunwin says.
Make the ask—wisely. How can compassionate managers also make sure that the work gets done? “Presenteeism is done,” Brunwin notes, so “it feels like you have to be more micromanage-y” and check in with people more frequently. Even in moments of tension, you can still ask people to produce. “It’s how you frame that,” she says, “and being clear with what you need when, and why.” And if people fail to deliver? Ask what went wrong and how you can help.
Jay Choi, EVP and general manager of the EmployeeXM business at Qualtrics
Choi oversees the employee experience management business at Qualtrics, which helps clients monitor the experience of staff or customers through surveys, social media analysis, and other forms of feedback. His advice?
Remember your influence. Choi says Qualtrics’ research on employee experience shows that in a crisis, “leadership counts for double.” In the pandemic, he notes, “people have lost their informal networks. They’ve lost their community at work. What their connection at work is now is their leadership chain.”
Check in more frequently. Instead of an omnibus annual study of employee engagement, take smaller bites to keep in touch with people and to keep a pulse on fast-moving situations.
Ask more human questions. “We have a two-question study that we do every week here: Are you ok, and what can we do to help? We’re [also] talking to our employees about much more than what we did before, much more about their well-being.”
Alain Sylvain, founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs
Sylvain runs a strategy and design consultancy that has done work for brands including Google, Airbnb, Spotify, BlackRock, Samsung, IKEA, and Sonos. It’s a certified B corporation, so it is used to articulating a sense of purpose, which Sylvain says has served the firm well in tense moments. His advice:
Set a specific purpose for getting through a tense period. “Organizations need a collective purpose,” Sylvain says. In discussing the challenge of surviving the pandemic, for example, “we looked each other in the eye and said, ‘We’re going to do this together.’ It was a hugely unifying moment.”
Develop brave spaces. “A lot of people talk about safe spaces when it comes to discussions around race, for example … but a lot of people build on that by talking about brave spaces. It’s a place where it takes a lot of courage to show up.” In a brave space, employees feel able to disagree with one another, constructively.
Show grace to one another. It sounds obvious, particularly in a moment of abject stress brought on by a global pandemic. But noting the relatively recent phenomenon of workplaces even acknowledging things like employee wellness and mental health, he reminds us that having a sense of grace for people at work during tough moments is “new to business.”