Managers and leaders are being asked to do something they’re not trained for. They are trying to lead a virtual team through crisis and potential trauma.
For the purposes of this article, I’m defining trauma as “an extremely distressing experience that causes profound or existential stress.” This is not a medical definition. Rather, it is a statement expressing the reality of the extreme stress people are feeling right now.
At the risk of being redundant, business as usual is long gone. Even if you’re the type of manager/leader who has a lot of change management experience… This. Is. Different. It’s different for team members and it’s different for leaders.
Neuroscience tells us that our brains work differently under stress. We think differently, feel differently and make decisions differently. Fight, flight, freeze, tend and befriend are in full affect. It’s no surprise to anyone that this impacts how people learn, relate, function as a team and lead.
Drawing from my experience in trauma-informed education, here are three things leaders can do to help their virtual team right now.
1) Establish rituals and routines
When everything is up in the air… work schedule, eating, sleeping, job security, social time, finances… we crave consistency. Create a ritual or routine that your team (or family) enjoys and looks forward to. Then stick to it.
This could be a virtual Monday coffee meeting, or asking your team to send you a daily gif on how they are doing that day. It doesn't have to be a big deal, it just needs to be dependable. For example, begin each virtual call with a poll or chat question. I like to start every team meeting with a "get to know you question," and I rotate who chooses the question to ask.
2) Be flexible
It’s completely possible your management style worked great three weeks ago, but is completely failing you now. It’s your role as a leader to adapt. Our greatest roadblocks are rooted in our successes – when we try to do something that worked before, but doesn’t work in the current situation. Now is what matters. Yell "plot twist!" and then pivot.
Make some time for self-reflection. If you have a coach, call them. If you need a reference, I’ve got a long list of coaches I am happy to recommend. Take some time to reflect:
Be ready to throw it all out the window. Remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about leading the team the way they need to be led. You don’t have to figure this out on your own. Your team will tell you what they need. Ask them, and then be of service.
3) Get personal
When structure, routine and any sense of stability are jeopardized, the one thing we can strengthen is relationships. This is the "befriend" stress response. It is especially helpful for team members who are passed the stage of shock and now in a phase of uncertainty. Relationships create resilience.
It’s completely normal to feel a loss of control, influence and empowerment right now. It’s time to surrender and trust. If an expectation or practice you used isn’t working, ditch it. If something isn’t mission-critical, save it for later. Petty disagreements, power struggles and conflicts, push the pause button.
Focus on what really matters. And that, is each other.
A few more words on trauma...
As I’m using it, “trauma” is not a label or diagnosis. It’s a lens we can apply to our experience.
Managers should not cross any legal, social or medical boundaries related to the health and well-being of their employees. Contact human resources if you have questions about what is okay and what is not.
Managers should not assume that any person is experiencing trauma. We do not know what is going on at home for our employees.
Each person’s unique diversity and culture shape their lived experience. Diversity, equity and inclusion play a huge role understanding our resilience.
I am not a licensed medical care practitioner and intend only to share tips tips based on my experience in trauma-informed educational and community-building practices.