Tips for Leading When Team Members Are Stressed

No spoiler here: We are living in a highly stressful time.

Posted Aug 11, 2020

I knew things were bad when an accomplished executive who had attended one of my leadership academies last year reached out to me last week.

Normally confident, upbeat, and unflappable, she described how trying to lead during a pandemic had thrown her for a loop. A number of her employees had family members suffering from the health and financial impacts of COVID-19, and every day it seemed like the virus was hitting closer to home. She felt trapped between the deep compassion she had for her team members and her accountability as a leader to reach some non-negotiable performance goals. It was heartbreaking to hear how that tension was weighing on her.

No spoiler here: We are living in a highly stressful time.

And the leaders I talk to every day are craving advice on how to manage their teams under these wild circumstances. How to empathize. How to provide support. How to make sure goals are still being met. It’s a delicate balancing act, for sure.

Here are a few helpful tips:

  1. Adjust your expectations—for them and for yourself. Productivity suffers when we’re dealing with situations beyond our control. Try to maintain a compassionate, human perspective.  
  2. Consider altering your team’s deliverables. Be realistic about what’s possible in this context. Are there projects that could slide to the bottom of the priority list? Can you reduce the scope of any initiatives or eliminate some completely?
  3. Spend time with each of your team members to find out how they are personally handling the stress. Some people may be reluctant to admit they are struggling, so make them feel comfortable with giving honest answers. Keep in mind that stress responses will be different for every person.
  4. If you have the authority to do so, provide tangible support for an employee who is completely overwhelmed by offering temporary solutions like time off, a more flexible schedule, or off-loading an urgent project to a co-worker. For larger concerns, refer your team members to your company’s Employee Assistance Program or similar services that are often free of charge.

The way you respond to your employees’ stress and fatigue right now will have an enormous impact on your long-term reputation as a leader. Be the person who demonstrates that “professional” and “compassionate” are not mutually exclusive.