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Taking over during a crisis? Here’s how to lead without alienating your new employees

Like their direct reports, leaders can show growth during this uncertain time by looking beyond the usual way of business and practicing empathy.

Taking over during a crisis? Here’s how to lead without alienating your new employees
[Photo: Joel Filipe/Unsplash; Man As Thep/iStock]

During conventional times, there are plenty of resources and suggestions available to help leaders taking on a new role, with onboarding and assimilating to a new team in regular times. Yet this transition is so immensely challenging that studies show as many as 40% of newly appointed managers derail in their first 18 months in a new role.

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Now imagine that you were appointed into a new role just before the pandemic hit, so you have to manage greater responsibilities than you’re used to, as well as get things done through people you hardly know yet—and can’t get to know in-person.

You will have to go beyond the textbook onboarding material to stay on your feet, especially while the pandemic continues to affect everyone’s work and life. To help you meet success, consider these four strategies.

Be open to new ways of observing your team’s performance

During a period outside of a crisis, a new boss at our company will acquaint themselves with the team through a listening tour, asking open-ended questions to solicit opinions, and walking around the office to observe people in action. But these days, leaders must be more creative about their preferred mode of gathering information.

An executive coaching client of mine was promoted at the beginning of the year (two months before the pandemic hit) to a VP position leading a multibillion-dollar division of a Fortune 50 company. His plan before the pandemic was to visit his globally scattered teams to develop connections with his managers and gather a clearer view of work on the ground. My client is a visual and kinesthetic learner, so face-to-face meetings are critical for his success.

Suddenly he was forced to manage this brand-new team completely via virtual meetings. Struggling with the inability to observe their work up close, my client began to grow sour about his new promotion, believing that he was destined to fail for reasons out of his control.

Through our coaching, I encouraged him to ask himself: “If I can’t go to them, how is there a way for them to ‘come to me?'”

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The executive decided to ask his team to send him packets of photos that would help him get up to speed on their work since he couldn’t visit himself. His team leaders also asked the operations managers on the ground to take short videos of themselves talking about their work and any challenges, similar to an in-person interaction.

The strategy proved helpful. By making this request, my client opened himself up to learning and presented his staff with more autonomy. His team stepped up, and he was able to get back on the learning curve.

Adapt to your employees’ new vulnerabilities

With most colleagues working remotely, leaders must recognize their employees’ vulnerability around an uncertain work-home environment, as well as their hesitance over potentially embarrassing video-feed situations at home.

Some of your new team members may feel uncomfortable when comparing their home spaces, however spacious or otherwise, with their colleagues’ homes. In a related situation, your reports who are parents may struggle to appear attentive and present while their kids run around and their spouses try to work within earshot.

Keep in mind, as a new team member, your team is trying to gauge your leadership style, as well as how they should present themselves in your eyes. These concerns heighten dramatically now as the pandemic is forcing us to expose parts of ourselves that we usually wouldn’t share with all of our colleagues. Maintain flexibility and pragmatism when collaborating.

Check your prejudices around remote productivity

As companies began mandating employees to work from home, I observed something interesting in my work with corporate leaders. The executives who considered themselves introverted loved the policy, while my extroverted clients struggled with it. For these extroverted leaders, their concern was primarily based in a belief system that equated close physical proximity to coworkers with increased productivity.

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Since introverted leaders typically flourish when left to themselves, many assumed the same of their colleagues; conversely, extroverts highly doubted how much their teams were getting done, remotely. When I asked one extroverted client why he was constantly texting his team during the day, he responded: “This way, I know they’re not sitting around watching Netflix all day.”

Therefore, when working remotely, resist projecting your discomfort about productivity under these conditions on others, just because you can’t observe them in real time. Monitoring people and mistrusting how they are operating when away from you removes their sense of autonomy and limits their discretionary effort.

Give before taking, and pull before pushing

Every newly appointed leader should work to find time to meet with their mentors and colleagues before big decisions. But this is hard to do because the pandemic has made your colleagues busier, more distracted, and physically distant. On an existential level, the crisis has also reminded people that life is too short to waste on things that seem superfluous right now.

For this reason, to establish yourself for success in a new role, you must prioritize giving value, rather than taking what you need from others. In the past, being pushy or “sales-y” was relatively harmless, but now, it can destroy valuable relationships.

To cultivate influence with colleagues, stop pushing your agenda and start gently pulling them toward you. For instance, if you want to meet with a peer or a direct report, rather than merely putting time on their calendar, try reaching out with a message asking if you can set up a meeting to talk about an issue and why this conversation may be helpful to them.

This is a time when it pays to ask before telling, pull before pushing, and invite before expecting. It’s the only way to attract (and not mandate) others to prioritize you in their increasingly busy life. Your chosen approach will establish you as a worthwhile leader (or not) through the pandemic and any future disruptions your team faces.

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Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach to the C-suite and leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, Coca-Cola, Cigna, Cox Enterprises, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and more. He offers tips to delivering tension-free feedback at the workplace.

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