How to Support the People You Lead in Times of Uncertainty 

Whether you are a manager, teacher, physician, nurse or counsellor, you are a leader in your organisation and community. In times of uncertainty and distress, it’s often hard to know how to best help others, much less motivate them to continue performing, learning, and growing. This can be especially difficult in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is changing how you work, how you learn, how you play, and how you communicate.

Many of your colleagues, clients, patients, and students are experiencing financial stress, uncertainty, and fear. It’s understandable for you to feel utterly helpless and it’s natural to cling to the status quo, urging people to stick to deadlines, assigned tasks, and as-normal-as-possible routines. But that would be a mistake.

The best leaders and coaches seek to connect with and understand others. They prioritise their team’s needs and create an environment of trust and support. They attend to building relationships, not just completing tasks. They motivate others to adapt, develop, persevere, and perform, even in the most trying of times, through a process we refer to as ‘coaching with compassion’.

Coaching with compassion
In the face of uncertainty, it is tempting to slip into taskmaster mode and resort to simply telling others what to do in order to fix a problem or improve a situation. We call that ‘coaching for compliance’ because the aim is compliance to some external standard of how a person should behave or what they should accomplish. That can sometimes work when the context is predictable and known and the goal is clearly and discretely defined, such as coaching a salesperson to achieve quarterly goals. But none of these characteristics apply to periods of volatility and distress.

Research suggests that coaching for compliance often leads to an outcome that is the opposite of what we desire. The individual can feel pressured or obligated, which activates a physiological state known as the “negative emotional attractor.” This state involves the body’s stress response system, which is essential for our fight-or-flight instinct, but will inhibit a person’s ability to actually learn, grow, and change. When the negative emotional attractor is triggered, a person is likely to become defensive and closed down emotionally, cognitively, and physiologically. Coaching with compassion, on the other hand, involves helping others to uncover or discover their ideas, feelings, hopes, and dreams and then supporting them in their efforts to adapt and change. This approach emphasises the needs of the individual or group, rather than the agenda of the leader, and prioritises building a resonant relationship with others. A resonant relationship is one anchored in mutual trust, where the leader takes intentional steps to notice people’s efforts and express gratitude, as well as suspend judgment and deeply listen.

Connecting and coaching with compassion activates an alternate physiological state, known as the “positive emotional attractor.” When we create resonant relationships with others, positive emotions are unleashed and the person is likely to feel more confident, hopeful, and open to considering new ideas. This also creates a sense of renewal for both parties in the relationship, thus reducing the negative effects of stress.

How to coach with compassion
We have more opportunities to lead and coach with compassion than we often realise, but it requires us to be intentional about being aware of ourselves and others and about cultivating empathy in our conversations and relationships. Quite simply, we need to remember to “REACH”—to follow the six steps below as we strive to help others.

R stands for resonance
Leaders need to reach out and connect in ways that are in sync and in tune with others’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The goal is to create a supportive, trusting, positive relationship in which you are focused on the other person over yourself.

E reminds us to lead with empathy
We need to shift our concern from wanting to be understood to understanding others.

A is about being aware of yourself and others
Before you can help others, you need to be clear on your mindset and emotions and their impact on the people and the environment around you. Emotions are contagious; so when you lead with joy, hope, humor, and love, others feel that. And when you lead with fear, anger, disappointment, and disgust, that rubs off on others, too.

C represents connecting with compassion
When we act from a place of compassion, we focus on the needs of others and respond in meaningful ways. Coaching others with compassion emphasises caring, warmth, and tenderness to help another person in their professional development. We often have a front-row seat to expressions of emotion in others, running the gamut from joy to sadness to anger. When you demonstrate compassion in helping roles, you listen and respond to the emotions beyond the person’s words.

H refers to the power of humour
Stress shuts us down to new ideas and experiences. It also makes us less likely to find things funny or amusing or be playful. By keeping things light, you remind others to keep smiling. Having a sense of humour and promoting laughter in the workplace has been shown to reduce stress and increase satisfaction, productivity, and performance.

The most powerful way to ameliorate the stress and uncertainty we are feeling is to reach out and help others. This can be in small doses by helping them laugh, helping them figure out how they want to act, or stimulating in them a moment of discovery. In highly uncertain times, instead of quickly jumping into advice-giving mode or falling back on the often-dysfunctional approach of telling people what to do, we have a rare opportunity.

By reaching out and connecting with compassion, we encourage others to be open, and to learn, change, and develop in meaningful ways during this time of crisis.