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Leading in Uncertain Times: 3 Things to Do Right Now

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Changes to the way we work are imminent, and the most resourceful leaders will see change as an opportunity to test new ways of working while embracing the challenge of the moment—to lead with certainty and conviction in a time of great ambiguity.

Business leaders are uniquely positioned to model calm, informed readiness right now, even if uncertainty reigns. The most successful leaders know that circumstances call upon them to provide a protective umbrella of psychological safety to their team as they weather current and future threats to the economy and typical mode of operations. You may be faced with tough decisions, but there are research-backed actions you can take to maintain some certainty and to foster continuity in the way that your team operates even if external circumstances (market threats, concerns about global public health for instance) continue to evolve.

These priorities will keep your team engaged, motivated, and performing regardless of their physical location. The key to performance is human motivation, and an essential component of motivation is relatedness. As leaders respond to directives designed to create physical distance, they must take extra steps to ensure that every team member maintains a strong sense of relatedness with one another. This responsibility is on the leader, who sets the tone.

By following the three steps outlined below, you will build confidence in yourself and your team while actively cultivating relatedness. This will safeguard motivation and performance.

Communicate Early and Often

The typical human reaction in a time of crisis is to hunker down and stay silent. This is a reasonable fear response to an imminent threat yet one that paradoxically produces significant harm. At first, it makes sense to keep quiet until official direction is provided. Leaders may not want to get ahead of (or contradict) official policy.

Leaders may be overly concerned about appearing in control and in the know and will, therefore, wait until they are certain of the direction before communicating to their team.

However, by not communicating, leaders may appear uncaring or unrealistic. Human brains have a strong negative bias: Without information, humans typically assume the worst. Further, leaders may overestimate team expectations of leaders having all the answers when in reality team members just want to feel connected and protected.


It’s far better just to share what you do know and build further credibility by being honest about the limits of your knowledge and the sincere intention to stay as informed and communicative as possible. Open communication solidifies your reputation and supports team morale. It also demonstrates care and respect for team members by leveling with them as professionals about what is known or what has been decided, what isn’t known or what hasn’t been decided, and when further information may be expected.

Overcome Team-Threatening Distances

How much do you know about effectively managing a virtual team? Now is the time to enhance or refresh your knowledge.

Get to know the many types of distances that can result from managing a distributed team—physical (place and time), operational (team size, bandwidth, and skill levels), and affinity (values, trust, and interdependency)—and consider the effect of potential disturbances to the team’s shared identity and shared context that may result from an abrupt shift to mandatory teleworking. If you aren’t already managing a virtual team, start communicating how you will establish and sustain this new normal right away.

Your highest priority is to mitigate the potential effects of affinity distance; if your team doesn’t already have a solid shared sense of identity, clear leadership and communication are necessary to lay the groundwork for this necessary element of effective remote work. As a leader, your role is to reinforce what is shared on the team—the team’s purpose—and to reinforce that team members depend on each other to accomplish a larger goal.


Without a shared sense of team identity, conflict and misunderstandings among team members may increase, particularly during times of heightened stress.

To manage distance, you will need to display enhanced communication skills and encourage others to follow your lead. Videoconferencing may be the next best substitute for face-to-face conversations as opportunities to build trust and maintain relatedness. Openly share your expectations and establish team norms for using different types of communication, including expected response times. Don’t assume that everyone is already on the same page. Your job is to get them there.

Prepare for Intentional Re-Entry

Every time the organization calls for a new way of working, you must reform your team as a coherent, motivated, and high-performing group. Don’t assume that this will represent an easy return to the previous manner of operating.

Instead of business as usual, team members will appreciate a re-entry period where they get used to being together again. Remember that this may take time too. Cultivate feedback and open dialogue to discuss what worked and what didn’t work, which elements of virtual collaboration they would like to continue, and how they think this experience may affect the team in the long run.

Consider resetting the team dynamics through a dedicated team session. The priority here is to create a dedicated time and space away from the hustle of everyday activities to intentionally ensure the team is aligned after overcoming a major disruption to its day-to-day. The key here is to not just assume that the team will come back together seamlessly but to intentionally create the conditions where the team can realistically cohere once more.

Unprecedented times do call for extraordinary leaders. These priorities are a research-backed road map to distinguish yourself in challenging times by meeting the crucial needs of your team members. By prioritizing communication, overcoming types of distances (especially the crucial affinity distance), and being intentional about re-entry, you can build relatedness and motivation of your team, no matter the external environment.

About the Author

Annemarie Spadafore has mastered the creation of powerful, resilient, and equitable leaders. As a Harvard-trained expert in organizational behavior, a Fulbright Scholar (PhD, political science), and ICF PCC, she transforms executives into actualized, inspired leaders who wield power to achieve results while engaging the best in others. With her sharp intellect and warm personal style, Dr. Spadafore has supported diverse audiences through deep individual and team coaching sessions and speaking engagements. She has provided executive coaching to 1000+ professionals, including C-level and senior executives, supporting their capacity to purposefully make strategic decisions to maximize results within complicated organizational systems and during times of monumental change.

Her coaching and public speaking practice supports executives in the Big 4 and other professional service and law firms; she also has significant experience in the financial services, defense and government contracting, media/advertising, technology, healthcare, higher education, and government sectors.

She speaks and presents widely on a variety of both business and soft skills topics, receiving excellent reviews. She develops and facilitates custom leadership programs, leads hybrid learning and coaching cohorts, and coordinates with organizations to set their management and professional development agendas. Connect with her at

1 Comment
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Great article by Annemarie focusing on overcoming team-threatening distances. Her suggestions give a fresh perspective on the different types of distances (physical, operational and affinity) that can disturb a team's shared identity. This article provided our national non-profit with fresh perspectives on broadening how we see all stakeholders as being parts of identifiable teams for us to build a shared sense of identity around.
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