Coaching Your Team Through COVID

The call came in at around 10 a.m. in the morning. My 9-year-old son’s friend had tested positive for COVID. The two played together outdoors five days prior, enough time to likely be safe but you can never be certain. My focus immediately shifted from the work I was doing to making the family appointments at urgent care to get tested.

Within 20 minutes, we had picked up our daughter from kindergarten and the four of us were standing in a waiting room. Thankfully, all of us came back negative (and Evan’s friend recovered quickly), but that was certainly not how I planned for my day to go.

As I returned to my home office, I began to think about my employees and how many of these types of unplanned events they’ve gone through, especially over the last year. No one was aware of what had happened to me that day. But the range of emotions I had experienced earlier had basically sucked all the energy out of me —  it threw me off my game.

I’ve written previously about awareness being the key to great leadership and this was one of those moments for me personally. This moment reminded me that I need to be more conscious and aware of what I don’t know. We’re all going through something, it’s just a matter of how much of something.

The email that took longer to get out than expected. The forgot-to-mention from an important meeting the week prior. Moments like these are bound to happen — I’m not talking about the individuals where this is a frequent occurrence, but those select employees who are usually on top of their game.

These folks deserve the benefit of the doubt because what you don’t know — and what they don’t have to tell you — is handled differently by each individual. Some internalize. Some immerse themselves in their work. Some get angry, albeit usually not at work. What there isn’t, however, is a perfect playbook to manage the unknown, both for employees or managers.

Back in the old days — er, 11 months ago — you’d be able to recognize some of these moments, either through visual cues in a meeting or catch-ups in the coffee room. That’s become much more challenging though as most interactions are now taking place on Zoom. This means every conversation, casual or not, is planned. You may start off a meeting with some small talk, but that time slot had to be planned. That makes everything more transactional in nature than personal — not fun, I know.

I brought someone from Google who is helping lead the company’s efforts to make working from home better to my team meeting a few weeks ago. He spoke about how he leads off every meeting with a question: “What is one useless superpower you’d love to have?” or “If you could be any NBA team, what team would you be?” It may sound corny but these type of questions injected more smiles into our meeting than most of the others we’ve had over the last year.

I even think about the oft-asked question, “How you doing?” — and no, not the Joey from Friends version. It’s a question where the typical response is “Good. You?” We don’t expect a long-winded answer about someone’s troubles. But is that acceptable? I don’t think so. I don’t want to assume everything is good with everyone because I know it’s not.

This doesn’t mean your meetings should turn into therapy sessions, but it’s important to create a safe space where your teammates and employees trust you and what they can say to you. This level of safety takes time to develop but is so important.

Simon Sinek wrote about the “circle of safety” in his book “Leaders Eat Last.” In the book, Sinek writes: “Only when we feel we are in a ‘Circle of Safety’ will we pull together as a unified team, better able to survive and thrive regardless of the conditions outside.”

In this context, are you creating a circle of safety where your team knows that the group will be there to support them? And that the support may be directly offered or indirectly implied? Those are two pretty powerful things to be aware of.

Since “quarantine” began last March, I’ve made it a priority to do a weekly virtual happy hour with my team. Over time, it’s grown to include others from outside the group in what we’ve alone dubbed the “longest-running happy hour in NBA history.” The majority of the time is spent talking about movies, food, trips, and very little about work. We even did a Secret Santa holiday party in December. This digital gathering is one of my favorite hours of the workweek.

I also don’t question days off. I usually never do, but especially now when we’re all taking less time away from the “office.” People need a break. I had a conversation the other day with someone who said they took a half-day recently and just sat on the couch watching movies. That’s not lazy. That’s disconnecting, an important aspect of mental health. To do good work, you have to feel good.

COVID is changing the way we work, in many ways for the better.  But Harvard Business Review wrote in September 2020 that 7 out of 10 people say this has been the most stressful time in their professional lives. Some have even said that they feel like they’re regressing professionally. That to me isn’t right. We’re all allowed to feel sad, mad, stressed, frustrated, etc. We often hide those types of feelings but are eager to show when we’re happy or excited. On both ends of the emotional spectrum, we have to make it known that someone is supported.

I truly believe we’ll reflect upon this time and recognize who the great leaders were. They were the ones who accomplished great things, but also made people feel (through compassion and empathy) excited to walk a couple of steps to work each morning.

Making changes down in your organization is easier than making changes up, then back down. Control what you can control. Make your team feel safe. If they don’t tell you something is wrong, it’s okay. Because you’re aware that everything is not perfect and that’s okay, for both you and them

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