Leading Teams in a COVID-19 World - Respond to emotional reactions

Levels of fear and anxiety are high around the world with the pandemic, and they are likely to be affecting your team.

Emotional reactions among the people you manage or work with might be intensified by:

  • Fear of being infected by COVID-19
  • Fear of bringing COVID-19 home to vulnerable family members
  • Reluctance to give up the positive aspects of work from home, including fewer interruptions, no commute, and the opportunity for more quality time with family
  • Sadness or depression as a result of social isolation
  • Eagerness to resume “normal” work
  • Irritation or anger at those who are fearful of returning to in-person work or reluctant to return for quality-of-life reasons
  • Grief, trauma, and fear in response to job losses among coworkers, friends, or family members
  • Grief and trauma in response to deaths in the family or among friends or coworkers

Listen and watch for signs of emotional distress

As you work with the members of your team, be alert to signs of emotional distress. Your role is not to be a therapist or solve the employee’s problem but rather to be alert to signs of emotional distress, offer reassurance, and gently get people to the support they need.

If you are not working together in person, be sure, in your one-on-one calls with employees, to ask how they are doing, then listen to what they say and pay attention to emotional cues. Some employees may choose unhealthy ways to deal with emotional distress, including substance abuse.

Watch for changes in behavior, too—signs of depression or substance abuse include:

  • Attendance problems
  • Errors and inconsistent work quality
  • Reduced ability to focus on work
  • Mood swings
  • Crying
  • Withdrawal from coworkers
  • Sleepiness or fatigue
  • Less care of personal appearance

Those signs, plus actions like giving away personal belongings, statements like “the world would be better without me,” or expressions of hopelessness, can also be indications of suicidal risk.

When you hear or notice signs of emotional distress, be prepared to offer appropriate comfort and guidance:

  • Offer sympathy and encourage the employee to share how they are feeling. Let the employee know that you care and want to hear what they are going through, but don’t try to solve their emotional problems yourself.
  • Normalize the emotional response, with statements like, “It’s natural to feel that way.”
  • Encourage the employee to practice self-care, with healthy eating, activity, and sleep habits.
  • Remind them of the help available to them through the EAP. Describe the ways the program can help and its confidentiality. Explain that the employee does not need to tell you what is causing the problem, and the information they share with the program specialist will not get back to you or anyone in the organization. (The only exception to this confidentiality is when an employee is at risk of harming themselves or others, in which case information may be shared with you, as the manager, or the HR department for safety reasons.)

Handling emotional reactions in team settings

If emotional expressions threaten to overwhelm a team meeting, acknowledge that it’s natural to have emotional reactions to the pandemic and the changes being asked of employees. If you have important work changes to review, ask that people hold their emotional reactions for the moment until you get through those. Then use your judgment as to whether to take time together to air those reactions or instead to follow up with individual employees.

In an appropriate way, you might share some of your own emotional reactions to the situations and changes you and your team have experienced—then step back and listen. The point of this is not to dominate the conversation with your own feelings, but to validate and normalize the emotions others may be feeling and encourage them to share what they are experiencing and thinking.

Handling conflict on the team

The emotions stirred up by the pandemic and associated work changes may lead to more conflict than usual on your team. As with any instance of conflict on your team, don’t ignore it and hope it will go away. Address it quickly to prevent escalation and head off its productivity- and morale-damaging effects on your team.

In most cases, it’s best if you remain neutral, without taking sides, and ask questions to understand what the conflict is about. Encourage the employees to work it out by themselves listening to and understanding each other’s point of view. You might offer coaching on how to do that.

You can’t allow the conflict to continue and grow into a situation where employees snub each other and stop talking or become overly emotional when dealing with each other. At that point, the conflict becomes a performance issue for the team, and you’ll need to play a more active role as a mediator.