The Covid-19 crisis has middle managers squeezed. You’ve had to take a pay-cut, lay off employees, and deliver bad news up and down the org chart. You’ve been working from home for weeks and feeling stressed because there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. What can you do to stay focused and upbeat during this uncertain time? How can you learn to reframe the situation you’re facing? Who can you vent to? And, what can you do to recharge when most of your usual outlets aren’t available?
What the Experts Say
The current health emergency is taking a toll on managers’ psyches, says Jacob Hirsh, assistant professor at the University of Toronto. “This is a period of great uncertainty,” he says. “As a manager, you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to do and how how’re supposed to do it.” Successfully weathering the current crisis lies in your ability to manage those emotions, says Rich Fernandez, CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a nonprofit organization that delivers mindfulness and emotional intelligence programs. At times like these, the quality of your leadership is dependent on “how you perceive stress and how well you’re able to adapt to, and navigate, adversity,” he says. Here are some recommendations for how managers can cope right now.
According to Fernandez, the most essential leadership decision you can make during a crisis is to choose self-compassion. “This doesn’t mean being super soft on yourself, making excuses, or being complacent,” he says. Rather, it means “orienting toward yourself” in a gentler, more sympathetic way. Ask yourself, “How would an old friend or a mentor who wishes the best for me reassure me and support me?” This empathic approach “creates a lens of kindness and goodwill that you can apply to everything you do,” he says. Too many managers criticize themselves for every little mistake and every “suboptimal decision” made. But self-bullying is damaging to your mental and physical health — and doesn’t benefit the people around you either. “It’s hard to move forward when you’re beating up on yourself,” he says.
Reflect on your purpose
One of the reasons the Covid-19 crisis is so personally painful, says Hirsh, is that “our purpose in life is tied to the future,” but for now, the future is in limbo. Perhaps you were planning to ask for a promotion for some of your team members, or maybe you were getting ready to kick off a bold new project, or even pursue a career change. “With those plans dissolved, it’s easy to lose a sense of who you are and where you thought your career was going,” he says. “You feel stuck.” To regroup, he recommends “reflecting on your values” and “focusing on what is truly important in your life and your work.” Carve out time to think about “what energizes and inspires you.” Ask yourself, “What’s important to me? What’s worth protecting? What’s worth holding on to?” Then you must actively work to “keep your sense of purpose alive.” The pursuit of your and your team’s goals may be on hold, “but try not to lose sight of the big picture.” Instead, remind yourself of “why you and your team wanted to do that thing in the first place” and then think about how to readjust to your present circumstances.
Reframe the situation
If you look at the challenges that Covid-19 poses purely through the lens of “frustration and worry, this will be a hard experience for you,” says Hirsh. But if you try to see it as “an opportunity — a creative innovation challenge,” you are more likely to rise to the occasion. For instance, let’s say you highly value mentoring and cultivating relationships with people you work with. The pessimistic devil on your shoulder might bemoan the fact that because of social distancing you can’t see your colleagues face-to-face. The optimistic angel on your other shoulder instead “thinks concretely” about new ways you might interact with your employees. “There is a greater need for mentoring because people are starved for guidance,” he says. “Demand has gone way up, so how can you scale up and address the larger need?” Your goal is to see the “different landscape” with fresh — and optimistic — eyes.
Force yourself to think positively
“It’s hard to cultivate an optimistic mindset” during a global pandemic, but this is one of those times in your life and career that you must force yourself to think positively, says Fernandez. Reflect on “how you’re explaining the current challenge to yourself.” Do you view the coronavirus as a permanent and pervasive threat? Or do you acknowledge that these difficult circumstances are temporary? Do you take the adversity personally? Or are you able to recognize that many people are in the same boat? If you fall into the catastrophic camp, try to be vigilant about “not going down a rabbit hole of negativity,” he says. “There is an emotional contagion that occurs when you’re thinking and communicating from that place,” and your team is likely to suffer as a consequence. To battle pessimistic tendencies, he recommends taking “detachment breaks” from work and the news. “Find ways to recharge yourself,” he says. “If you can, get a little fresh air and sunshine.” Have lunch with your significant other or a virtual coffee break with a friend. Do what you can, says Hirsh, to “find the glimmers of hope and possibility.”
Seek a sense of achievement
You and your team are dealing with “the frustration that arises from challenges that can’t be solved in a day or a week or a month,” says Hirsh. To remedy that, he recommends looking for “localized, contained tasks” that you and your employees can reasonably accomplish over the course of the workday or week. “Focusing on small victories for yourself and your team helps provide a footing, a direction” and a much-needed self-esteem boost. Look, too, for outlets outside your job that offer a “sense of accomplishment and achievement.” If you have time and motivation, consider developing a new skill: study a foreign language, for instance, or learn to code. At a time when you feel out of sorts and have an “unmet need for mastery,” it’s helpful to have a slice of your life where you feel “confident, capable,” and that you’re “getting better” at something.
Embrace your humanity
Even in good economic times, frontline managers must balance two identities. “On one hand, you want to be a role model of strength, confidence, and unflappability,” says Hirsh. But on the other hand, it’s important “to be human.” If you’re open about “the challenges you’re going through,” your employees will appreciate your candor and feel a sense of “solidarity” with you, he says. They might think, “My leader is a lot like me, and they’re able to keep going.” Fernandez agrees but offers a critical caveat. “As a manager, you have a megaphone: Everything you say gets amplified.” He recommends talking honestly about your concerns, but also “expressing what you’re doing to practice renewal” so that you don’t inadvertently direct them toward negative feelings. You want to skew your communications with the team toward “possibility and resilience if not outright optimism,” he says. “It’s your job.”
Look for outside support
Your team members should definitely not be the repository for all your inner fears. “It’s more important than ever” to seek other avenues for “social connection to help” you cope, says Fernandez. He recommends calling on a trusted family member, friend, mentor, or a peer — ideally at a different organization. Ring up your “buddy from grad school,” he says. It’s a good time to reconnect with people since most people are at home and similarly trying to cope. “Everyone needs a sounding board.” Hirsh concurs. Don’t go it alone. If you bottle up and try to go about business as usual, “your problems stick with you,” he says. Perspective and insight from someone on the outside can “help you solve them.”
When work is demanding, “it’s easy to let your wellbeing fall by the wayside,” says Hirsh. In addition to getting enough sleep and eating well, be sure to carve out time for exercise and meditation. “They provide protection against burnout and make a difference in terms of how your body and mind respond to stress.” Don’t think of taking care of your physical and emotional health as “selfish or self-indulgent.” Rather, it’s an issue of survival. In times like these, hobbies and diversions also help you relax and refresh. Get creative, says Fernandez. “Think: What’s available to me now?” Dust off the musical instrument sitting in your closet, challenge yourself to cook a gourmet meal, plan your next DIY project, or read a juicy page-turner. “Let yourself get lost in something,” he says, so you can “stop your mind from spinning.”
Principles to Remember
- Think about what’s important in your life and your work, and take time to reflect on what energizes and inspires you.
- Shift your mindset and reorient how you and your team accomplish your goals. Certain windows may be closed, but others are open.
- Spend time on tasks that give you a sense of mastery and achievement. You need a slice of your life where you feel confident, capable, and in control.
- Beat yourself up. Treat yourself with kindness and empathy the way a good friend would.
- Shy away from revealing your humanity. Be open with your team about how you’re coping with the challenges you’re personally going through.
- Neglect your physical and emotional wellbeing. Make self-care a top priority and find ways to decompress and recharge.
Advice in Practice
Case Study #1: Try to look at the situation in a new light; find new ways to feel productive
Jay Gadi, engineering manager at SoapBox, the management software company based in Toronto, admits that it’s been a “tough time” for his team and his company.
During the first week of the quarantine, SoapBox laid off half its staff. Morale took a hit. “We lost some great colleagues,” he says. “And everyone was already under a lot of stress.”
He remembers thinking, “How the heck am I going to make sure that everyone on my team is functioning ok, while also taking care of myself?”
But Jay is determined to try to think about the situation as positively as he can. “We are in crisis and this is really hard, but I like to think about it differently: This is probably the biggest growth opportunity that I will ever have in my career,” he says. “If I can manage through this and make sure my team weathers this storm, we will all come out [the better for it.]”
To that end, Jay is using this time to accomplish professional tasks that he’d temporarily put aside. For instance, he is learning a new programming language. He is also focusing on the ways in which he relates to, and motivates, his team members. He has increased his one-on-one meetings with his direct reports and is making a special effort to connect with them on a more personal level. “This time is stressful, and I want to be empathetic. I am constantly asking: how are you doing?” he says. “I am also showing my vulnerability by talking about what I am experiencing, too.”
Each workday at 1pm, he runs a virtual meditation session for his team. It’s not mandatory, but he says that many employees enjoy it. “After lunch, I open up a group chat, and we do a Headspace meditation to relieve stress,” he says.
He is also devoting more time to mentoring younger developers outside of his immediate work circle. Building relationships with others is something he enjoys and feels good about. “I like helping people and giving feedback — it’s one of the reasons I got into management.”
The days are hard and long, but Jay is trying to have perspective. “This [pandemic] isn’t going to last forever, but [I’ll remember] the lessons that I will learn from it forever.”
Case Study #2: Create possibilities for small wins and celebrate them
Danielle Menkens, executive producer at Ready Set Rocket, the New York City-based marketing and advertising firm, says that managing through the uncertainty of Covid-19 is like walking a tightrope.
“I have to strike the right balance,” she says. “I am prepping for worst-case scenarios but also trying to instill optimism in my team. Since my team is working remotely, I am also trying to put more structure in the day-to-day, [without their] feeling like I am micro-managing.”
Since winning new business deals isn’t likely to happen in the coming weeks and months, she needs to make sure that her team “holds on to the work” it does have and also feels a sense of forward momentum.
For instance, the team is diligently working through a sprint plan for a website development project. With the help of her team, Danielle has broken the project into bite-sized tasks. “It gives us the sense that we are hitting milestones,” she says. “Sometimes people need space to think about projects more freely, but in this period, having this structure helps.”
She is also making it a point to “celebrate smaller wins” more than she usually would and make liberal use of Slack to praise employees’ good work and individual successes. Recently, for instance, two designers wrapped up their plans for a new site.
“They’ve been heads down on the project for a couple of months now, and I wanted to make sure they knew I appreciated their hard work,” she says. “Typically, I’d just see them in the office and let them know, but since that’s not possible right now, I give virtual shout-outs.”
Danielle has also spent these past few weeks reflecting on her professional goals and values. Pre-Covid-19, Danielle says that the best parts of her job were her one-on-one interactions with a wide range of people at the company. “I got to work with members of the creative team, the strategy team, the management team. I was exposed to each of their unique skill sets, and I got to learn a lot.”
She has made it a priority to maintain those close relationships and find new ways to connect with her colleagues beyond the company’s weekly virtual happy hours and Friday themed dress-days. “I am checking in with people as often as I can and asking them about anything that isn’t work-related,” she says.
On a personal level, she is trying to fall back on her old routines. Before the health crisis erupted, she started a sewing class. She’s carved out time in her week to practice. So far, she’s made a couple of new skirts, some drawstring bags, and face masks. “It’s been helpful to have a new hobby,” she says. It’s one of the many things helping her stay positive during this uncertain time.