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Leading and Managing in the time of COVID-19

| April 14, 2020

by Jim Bruce

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. He may be reached at [email protected].]

Tuesday Readings for the past four weeks have focused on how we can best work during the pandemic which now envelops all of us. Brian McDonald began this series by urging us to “get on the balcony to think strategically and play out the different scenarios.” He also noted that “communicating is a key responsibility” and urged leaders “to be self-observing about how you lead.”

In the series’ second essay, Sean McDonald focused on our relationships. He reminded us of the “4 I’s” — Initiate, Inquire, Invest, and Influence — and observed that strong relationships are absolutely necessary as we work during the period from now until a vaccine arrives. In the third essay, Bill Hogue focused on proposing a change — purpose, picture, plan, (your) part, and practice — to which he added “pandemic.” Certainly, the pandemic in which we now find ourselves requires that we forcefully engage in a set of changes that we could not have imagined possible before this crisis was upon us.

Last week, I continued this theme’s focus with the essay “Unexpectedly Working from Home, Courtesy of COVID-19.” There, I focused on a set of practices that you might find helpful as you get organized and begin to work remotely. Today, the focus will be on approaches that leaders and managers can use to promote the work of their teams and to support those who work with them.

Communicate clearly, frequently, and decisively. Most of the essays I’ve read about working remotely, particularly when the change to remote work was made suddenly without much notice, have put communication at the top of their list of priorities. They point out that a manager often does not really appreciate the number of formal and informal interactions he or she has with team members over the course of a day. Some of these may be formal, in-the-office with the door closed meetings, others may be quick conversations in the hallway, or a longer conversation in the lunch room or on a walk outside.

When work becomes remote, essentially all of the informal conversations you have with those you lead along with all the conversations they have with each other are gone. If there is an overarching observation, it is that over-communication is far better than under-communication. A good starting place might be a short team check-in near the beginning of the day and one or two quick check-ins with each of those you lead each day. While that may seem to be a lot, if you stop and think about it, it is probably a lot less than what you did before you and your team began to work remotely from different locations. What’s different is that you now have to be far more intentional in making these interactions happen.

When you meet with your team or your individual team members, work to make sure that the meetings are “psychologically safe.”1 Amy Edmondson and Jeff Polzer, both Harvard Business School faculty members, point out that “Speaking up at work can be difficult. People worry that their boss or colleagues won’t like what they have to say. As a result, people hold back on everything from good ideas to great questions. But by fostering psychological safety, all employees can feel safe to speak up.” And, speaking up is even more difficult when everyone is remote.

Fostering psychological safety starts small by each person taking small risks by contributing a new idea or challenging a colleague or asking a colleague to contribute to a discussion. Small risks that end well are emulated. Leaders and managers, as well as other team members, need to ensure that they do end well.

Teams arrange their communications in different ways. For example, a team leader might have a video call with all of his or her team members early in the day. A quick check-in to see how the team is, receive updates on critical work, etc. Some teams who previously shared a large office might keep a video call up throughout the entire day to promote interaction much like they had in the office. The team leader or others might designate times when they are available and invite team members to make short appointments during these “office hours.” Or, they might leave a call window open during the parts of the day when they are available to simulate an open office door and a willingness to be interrupted. Others might designate text or Slack channels for matters about a particular subject or level of urgency.

While we all complain about unnecessary interruptions when we are in the office, it is necessary to make it easy and relatively effortless to communicate, often interrupting, when working remotely.

Pay attention to your SCARF.2 Several years ago in Tuesday Readings we discussed leadership and neuroscience and introduced the SCARF — Status, Certainty, Ambiguity, Relatedness, Fitness — model that provides a framework for understanding how the brain experiences events, and in this case events in the workplace, in our lives. For our purposes, our brain experiences our work place, first and foremost, as a social system. David Rock, one of the prominent researchers in this area, puts it this way: “Leaders who understand this dynamic can more effectively engage their employees’ best talents, support collaborative teams, and create an environment that fosters productive change. Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead.”3

If we employ this model, leaders and team members will treat all of our work as meaningful and put more emphasis on the higher priority tasks (Status), we will communicate with confidence and maturity (Certainty), help staff see and understand what they are already in control of and empower them (Autonomy), help individuals see their connection to activities that are important and identify ways to work with each other (Relatedness), and we will share executing the processes used to make decisions (Fairness).

David Rock states the importance of SCARF this way: “If you are a leader, every action you take and every decision you make either supports or undermines the perceived levels of status, certainty, ambiguity, relatedness, and fairness in your enterprise.  …  Just as the animal brain is wired to respond to a predator before it can focus attention on the hunt for food, so is the social brain wired to respond to dangers that threaten its core concerns before it can perform other functions… Humans cannot think creatively, work well with others, or make informed decisions when their threat responses are on high alert.”

So, in this challenging time, it is very important for all leaders and all staff to pay attention to their SCARF in order to perform their work most effectively.

Provide regular feedback. Even in a video chat, according to CEO coach Sabina Nawaz,4 “the subtleties of nonverbal communications are lost to remote work.” She writes that the need for recognition and good news is exacerbated in difficult times. Her recommendation is that a leader needs to make the effort to acknowledge good (and not only great) work with specific, positive feedback. It does not need to be a long speech. A simple “Sam, that’s great. Thank you”or  “Pat, thanks for getting that upgrade finished early. It’s really helpful to our clients to have those changes earlier than expected.” can provide what’s needed.

As you go through your day, look for opportunities to provide specific, encouraging feedback to those with whom you interact. Research suggests that this will be good for those you interact with and for you.

Focus on outcomes. Too often leaders have a practice of focusing more on the details than is necessary given the skills of the staff member. And, such a focus conveys, not so subtly, the message “I don’t trust you.” ”I don’t trust you to seek help when you need it.” “I don’t trust you to do it ‘my’ way.” as if that is always the best, correct way. Managers need to take a step back and trust their decision to hire and develop this staff member. If they have done their job well, they will have a staff member who will know when to engage their team leader on the work underway. So, do check in to see how your staff member is doing, but, don’t delve into the details of what he or she is working on. Expect them to deliver the requested outcome on time and to come to you if and when they need your input. And, of course, you have to make it clear in word and in deed that this is how you work and that you expect staff to engage you promptly when they encounter problems that they cannot resolve in a timely fashion.

Promote social interaction.5 It’s important to keep your culture strong and preserve rapport when everyone is working remotely. Some teams gather virtually for coffee or lunch and schedule after-hours virtual happy hours. Such virtual gatherings can strengthen team bonds and remind everyone that they are all in this together. Even though done virtually, you can still celebrate birthdays, employee milestones, other events like the birth of a new child, etc. and this will be appreciated by your team.

A final word. No one of us has any real idea of how long the current state of working from home will last. As we all know, there are large economic pressures to return to something more akin to the old normal, and to do that soon. Yet, there are strong arguments that too precipitous a return could put many people who are not immune to COVID-19 at serious medical risk, resulting in many new hospital admissions and deaths. So, while some argue that we should begin to return in four to six weeks others argue that we won’t be safe until a vaccine exists which could be as long as 12 to 18 months.

This suggests that all of us need to settle into a pattern of work that functions well for ourselves, for others on our team, and for our organization. It’s likely going to be a while and it’s entirely possible, some would say likely, that work will never return exactly to the way it was before COVID-19.

I do hope that you are working to find a way to be successful in all your endeavors in the coming days and weeks.

.  .  .  .  jim



1.   Amy Edmondson, Jeff Polzer, Why Psychological Safety Matters and What to do about It, re:work,, September 2016.

2.   Jim Bruce, SCARF :: A User’s Guide, MOR Associates Tuesday Reading, August 2016.

3.   David Rock, Managing with the Brain in Mind, Strategy+Business August, 2009.

4.   Sabina Nawaz, How Managers Can Support Remote Employees, Harvard Business Review, April 2020.

5.   Bruna Martinuzzi, 3 Techniques to Keep Remote Employees Engaged, American Express blog, March 2020.


Other resources you might find helpful 

1.   Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, Leading Through Crisis. (This is a collection of short videos. See in particular “The Neuroscience of work-from-home productivity.”)

2.   Barbara Z. Larson, Susan R. Vroman and Erin E. Makarius, A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers, Harvard Business Review, March 2020.