Leading and Speaking in Unprecedented Times

Rarely if ever, in most of our lifetimes, has there been such a collective sense of anxiety and stress. A defining election following one of the most divisive campaigns ever comes to a head tomorrow. A global pandemic continues to plague all of us and our families, with businesses and industries forever changed, more countries closing down again, and more of us resigned to working remotely for the foreseeable future.

In the last several years, it’s usually been that come December people are tired, exhausted and the final sprint to the end of the year is met with a respite of the holidays. This year is different. The collective stress and fatigue in every person I talk to, every company I work with, is intense and real, and it’s come far earlier than usual.

For those in leadership positions, now is the time, more than anything, to show care and concern for the people who work with you and communicate with vulnerability and purpose. Here are four principles to guide you:

(1) BE HUMAN.Be kind, be patient, be understanding and show care above all else. Stress and exhaustion manifest in a variety of ways, and often it shows up at work in unexpected ways and makes us do crazy things. This is a time to cut people a bit of slack. Explicitly encourage people to take time away, to take care of themselves. Be explicit in recognizing how hard people have been working, and about the successes achieved under really hard circumstances. Often this goes unspoken, but now is the time to be clear.

(2) COMMUNICATE IN BURSTS, NOT ALL THE TIME.Research from Harvard Business School shows that remote teams that communicate in spurts are the most productive. Higher performance comes from dedicated time to communicate with teams, not a constant stream of Slack and text messages, or an endless slew of Zoom meetings.

People need time to do work, to think, and to process. Setting aside specific, dedicated time for communication, and expectations around response times is something for every manager and leader to think about more. The same concept applies in your personal life, with one study showing that emails, texts and social media take up 10% of our free time, and fragment this time in ways that make it hard to focus and enjoy life.

(3) COMMUNICATE WITH A PURPOSE. Now more than ever, it’s an important moment to be honest with yourself and clear about the purpose behind every communication you send, every presentation you give, every meeting you have. It’s really important to remind people of expectations and guardrails for what you expect of them — both in terms of behavior and in terms of output.

When people are tired and stressed, emotions run high and the risk of misperception is high. Being really honest with yourself about what you’re trying to achieve is critical for everybody, especially leaders right now. Key questions to ask:

What is my goal here? What is my motivation? What makes this challenging? What tone do I want to convey? Where should I communicate this?

Using a grid or a checklist like this one can help for many of our hardest situations.

(4) BE HONEST, BE VULNERABLE. People are starved for meaningful connection, especially at work, especially in a divisive time like this. Being vulnerable takes bravery, and it builds connection rooted in authenticity.

I wrote a post on Facebook and Instagram last night about how I’m feeling going into the election. In it, I shared why, despite being anxious and feeling tired, I continue to find power in taking a deep breath and a break. I try to widen the aperture of the lens I view the world through and see that so many of the obstacles that are in my way are really a result of my own mis-perceptions or limited view. And I shared what motivates me to keep going, to keep showing up, and to keep communicating and leading with purpose.

I was surprised about the big reaction — I received a lot of personal messages and texts following that one post — most you wouldn’t see in a “like” or a comment. It struck a chord and it reminded me again of the power that comes from being honest, vulnerable because it’s the root of how we connect.

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I’d love to hear what you think. Be well, and take care of yourself and each other.

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher. www.azureleadership.com/honestlyspeakingbook

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