Editor’s note: This article was first published on April 14th, 2020, just a few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic. While the context may have changed, your plays as a leader are still the same.

In these uncertain times, you are likely facing new challenges as a leader.

From working from home to school closures and outright community lockdowns – everyone has been dealing with significant, unexpected change over the past few weeks. These changes have impacted us all – changing the way we communicate, work together, and accomplish our goals.

During these tough times what we have noticed is people’s desire to help others. The feeling that we will come through this together is a rallying cry that gives heart to many. But as leaders, as coaches, what does this mean? How do you help your people during times like this? It’s a question many are struggling with.

It’s all about the relationship

When people go through difficult times together, they can emerge more connected – but only if they’re conscious about it. Difficult times can also lead to fracture. As a leader, it’s your job to step back and really think about how you are building and deepening relationships with your people in this new environment.

Take the time to check in with your people and listen to them. Take some time to step back and see what you’re going through as impartial observers and acknowledge that it’s hard. These are unprecedented times and the effort you make to stay connected with your people can make a huge difference.

Coach Roy Rana of the Sacramento Kings spoke with us about how building relationships is intentional. There is an intention to communicate, to make the person feel connected, to ensure they know they have your attention. He talks about the little things that he does to accomplish this. In the video below, he lays out the wonderful challenge he sets for himself of “30 seconds every day for every player”:

Rana’s Strategies are for basketball – not your environment. So what would work for you? What are the little ways you can connect with your people to communicate that you are thinking of them and you care?

The game has changed

By now, every workplace has been impacted by COVID-19. The game has changed, and clarity needs to be re-established. Your team needs new skills and mindsets so that you can get through this together.

“We can’t go back, only forward.”

Ask yourself what your team needs for their new playbook. Do your people know what the work expectations are today? Timelines are different. Things change quickly so clarity is always evolving. Think short term and help them find focus. Do they know what other people need from them? Are they aware of how your goals have shifted? Especially if your team is working differently than they’re used to, over-communication is impossible when it comes to these things.

Your team also needs clarity on what your organization’s values look like in this reality. Not just the vague, nice-sounding words – what they actually look like. If you value safety, how are you acting on that value? If you value team, how are you making sure that no one’s feeling isolated? Get together as a team to discuss your values and think through how you’re living up to them at this time.

Through all of this, recognize that as a coach you need to meet your people where they’re at. Some team members might be juggling kids and other family constraints. They may even be caring for someone who is sick. Give them real clarity on how your team can work well together in a way that’s not going to make anyone feel criticized, judged or guilty. Have empathy for what they’re going through and use humour to help people feel at ease.

Some team members (and perhaps even you) may be thinking they just need to hold on for a little bit longer until things get back to normal. That thinking will not serve them or the organization well. When companies face disruption, the ones who try to ignore it or find a way to hang on to their old ways of doing things don’t fare well – think Blockbuster. We can’t go back, only forward.

New plays for a new game

When the game changes, you can’t expect to get the same results from the same behaviours. As a coach, your goal is to help your people succeed in their new reality – and this means helping them get up to speed on the skills that will support the new expectations as well as discouraging the old behaviours that are no longer productive.

This is all about consistent feedback and communication, and feedback is a challenge when you can’t see what people are doing. For the coachee, the lack of visibility can lead to frustration and unnecessary roadblocks that can harm engagement. Make a habit of checking in frequently with each team member to support their development. This isn’t about micromanaging or checking up on them; it’s about making sure they’re not sitting alone frustrated because something’s blocking their progress.

If that sounds like a big job, that’s because it is. Coach Rana told us about how making time for each and every team member is a challenge even as a professional coach. And he offered this advice for keeping the connection alive even when it feels like you’re too busy.

Out of sight, not out of mind

If what I’m doing can’t be seen, how do I know if it’s valued or appreciated?

This is one of the challenges your people are facing as they transition to a new reality. People need to know that what they do has value, so giving appropriate recognition is more important now than ever.

This doesn’t mean handing out awards and prizes. It’s about looking for the bright spots – things that are going well, little wins, positive behaviours – and acknowledging them. You might recognize a team member who creates a shared space for everyone to connect, or someone who volunteers to take on a task for another team member they see struggling.

It’s also vital to recognize that people need to feel connected and not isolated. Make every conversation a coaching one. Even simple questions like “how are things going today” have value for a coach. As you explore the answer, you can uncover the information you need to find possibilities and build commitment to a solution. When people are worried, anxious or afraid they’re harder on themselves than ever. Having the coach remind them of who they are at their best brings tremendous energy.

Be ready for the human element

Behind all this is a real humanitarian challenge. As time goes on, the people on your team may become sick, need time off to care for loved ones, or worse. Loss is going to look very different for different people – it can be loss of a loved one, income, or something else. As a coach you have a role to play in supporting your team members as they recover from whatever their loss may be.

The temptation is to think that when someone is in pain over their loss that bringing it up will cause undue pain by reminding them of it. Just keep to your work and ignore it. And that’s like the monster under the bed for a little kid. As long as the kid believes there’s a monster under the bed it gets bigger and bigger. The longer it goes, the bigger it gets.

“When loss isn’t acknowledged, it feels like it’s been dismissed.”

This is true on both sides of the relationship. In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, she talks about how the hardest part of going back to work after losing her husband was the silence. When loss isn’t acknowledged, it feels like it’s been dismissed. And a significant loss being dismissed feels really bad.

You don’t need to be a counsellor or have all the answers, and there’s no secret formula for how to deal with these times. Your job as a coach is to bring things to the surface and give people permission to talk about it if and when they want.

Help people get better at whatever it is they do

We often define a coach’s core job as this: help people get better at whatever it is they do. We call this developmental bias, the idea that a coach is always biased toward developing their people no matter what the circumstance. As the “whatever it is they do” continues to change and evolve over the coming months, and probably years, you have an opportunity to help your people stay engaged and rise to the occasion.

By maintaining and building relationships, building clarity around what’s expected, building competence in new ways of working, and recognizing the all of what is happening, you can show your people that you’re on their side and help your entire team emerge stronger for it.