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May 6, 2020

7 Common Questions Leaders Have About Leading and Communicating During COVID-19


Over the last several weeks we’ve spent a lot of time talking with leaders – from one-on-one counsel to Q&As during webinars – on how best to lead with empathy during times of uncertainty and change. Throughout these discussions there have been a number of common questions leaders have about leading and communicating during these times.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled some of the most common questions to date and provide answers to them here in case it helps you, too.

Q&A on How to Lead and Communicate with Employees During COVID-19

Q: Is it wise to start each meeting with some small talk about COVID-19?

A: The idea of some warm-up conversations can be helpful. One idea from a client of mine is to, once a week, begin their team meeting by going around and asking everyone to share a challenge they’re facing right now, as well as something that brings them great joy at the moment. This strategy is a more purposeful alternative to small talk and helps people acknowledge what they’re dealing with now and then focus on the team or the topic at hand.

Q: How do we show respect to people's challenges/changes in circumstances while still moving projects/work forward?

A: It’s an important question, and it’s not an ‘either/or’. I suggest we think about it as a ‘both/and’ scenario. As leaders, we need to think about how we can be empathetic and understanding, and focus on what we need to do to move the business forward. I recommend doing check-ins with your folks to get a sense of their mindset and how they’re feeling so you can meet them where they are.

Taking inspiration from the famous Maya Angelou quote, people aren’t going to remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. I think this is especially true now. Helping people work through their feelings and doing what you can to remove obstacles that are in their way, is going to be the most productive way to get them focused on the job at-hand.

Q: What is the right amount of communication? How do I know, as I think about my communications cadence, that it’s enough (not too much or too little)?

A: One of the best ways to know is to ask. It could be in a conversation with all your direct reports, it could be in one-on-ones with each of your team members, or it could be both. Give folks a continuum of ‘exactly the right amount – too much – not enough’ and ask them to help you with where your communication lands on the continuum and why. I also suggest asking your team what’s working today that you should continue with, and if they have ideas to consider for improving the cadence of communication. Doing this will give you a pretty good sense of whether you’re on target, or if there are some tweaks that need to be made.

In general, research I’ve seen about communication during COVID-19 shows that employees want and need to hear from their leaders a lot. It’s almost impossible to overcommunicate right now.

Q: I was trying to create an environment to get more dialogue going with an ‘all hands’ style meeting for my team, and that didn’t get much traction. How would you recommend handling video communications with my team?

A: I recommend trying some small-group video conferences in this case. Think ‘micro’. Gathering smaller groups in the videoconference format can help create an environment where people feel more comfortable opening up. The town hall is still an important vehicle in your cadence, and I suggest adding some of the small group virtual meetings in too, as an opportunity for you to continue listening, and proactively give folks comfort and understanding – and a different way to connect with you.

Q: Are there any thoughts on managing communications with customers and coaching front-line teams on customer communication, especially when the customers are frustrated?

A: Whether you’re talking with your employees about how they’re doing or coaching them on communicating with customers, I think the words to keep in mind are listening and empathy. Listening is the foundation of all good communication, so we need to start there. It will help us put ourselves in the shoes of our customers and understand why they might be frustrated. Once we understand where they’re coming from, of course, we’ll do what we can to help them. Even if we can’t fix their situation, though, if they feel heard, appreciated and understood, it will go a long way toward relieving some of their frustration.

Q: How do you recommend dealing with individuals who lack empathy and don’t make accommodations for the special circumstances we're in today, with people fearing for their wellbeing, increased demands on their time from families, etc.?

A: That’s a tough one. It depends, in part, on your relationship with the individual. If this is a member of your team, you can reinforce the importance of empathy as a key tenet of leadership. You can coach them on how to do it. Then, you might ask about the person’s ability to demonstrate empathy as you collect feedback on him or her from others for their performance review so you can continue to help them develop this skill.

If the lack of empathy is coming from a peer or someone more senior to you, it can be more challenging. If possible, set up a one-on-one conversation with them and preface your comments with a statement such as, “I want to share some feedback that I think is important but that you may not want to hear.” If you can share specific examples of times when they could have shown more empathy, it may help convince them to listen to you. In the end, though, you can’t control what they say or do.

Q: You recommend checking in with everyone daily. That would probably take up my whole day if I did that. How can I stay connected and satisfy the ‘me’ items without connecting every day with everyone?

A: If you have a large team, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t be able to check in with everyone on the team every day. My recommendation is to set aside a certain amount of time (whether that is 30 minutes a day or an hour) and commit to spending it checking in on your people. It is likely that you’ll figure out quickly who needs more of your time and attention because they are struggling with the ‘me’ questions, like “how am I doing?” and “does anyone care about me?” Others might be doing well and not require as frequent check-ins.

If you have direct reports who are supervising others on your team, you should set the expectation that they will check in with their team members and alert you if they need you to step in and help with someone who is having a hard time.

Ultimately, my counsel is to do the best you can to stay in touch with your people and flex to meet their needs. Make it a priority because it is important for their ability to focus and be productive. And that’s important to your success.

What questions do you have about leading and communicating today?

—David Grossman

Click below to download your free eBook—8 Ways to Lead with Heart in Times of Uncertainty and Change—and get 8 key strategies to help you lead and communicate with heart – and guts – to motivate and engage your employees, drive performance and get results.

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