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Magnifying What is Already There: Your Leadership Under the Microscope of Crisis

Before my husband and I had children--and were therefore less stressed and more well-rested than we could ever appreciate at the time--I asked a friend what having a child does to a marriage. Her response was this: "Having a child magnifies what is already there. If you are good partners, you'll be even stronger. If you have a tendency to keep score, look out."

This turned out to be uncomfortably accurate. In fact, in our first year of parenting, we learned more about the dynamic between us because, just as my friend had predicted, it was magnified and therefore much easier to see.

In the past two weeks I've had dozens of calls from leaders seeking coaching on how to handle the radical shift that COVID-19 has brought upon their organizations. A handful of leaders even expressed surprise at the issues among their teams. Some mentioned that their staff members were acting in ways they've never acted before. Each time, I was quick to follow up with: "You mean acting in ways you've never noticed before?" And each time the leader followed with: "How is that different?"

The difference is, in times like these we fail to understand that what we are noticing has always been there. My naked eye may not see the pounds of dog hair that is embedded deep within our living room rug, but once I suck it up through the vacuum, the canister shows what's been there all along. So for leaders, understanding that you are in a time of magnification may, on the face of it, seem exhausting. But it is also a wonderful opportunity to study and learn about yourself and your team. Here are three tips to try during this time of unprecedented magnification:

1) Trust Your Emotions

Emotions will run higher and hotter during times like these. You may find yourself angrier than normal, more anxious than usual, or more full of self-doubt than ever before. The temptation will be to work doubly hard to squash those feelings because they are uncomfortable and because they are easily written off as a response to the current crisis. But in reality, your emotions during times of chaos can be a really strong and efficient indicator of something that might otherwise take your mind a while to process. Essentially, your emotions right now are your killer instincts. And while I don't suggest acting rash, I do urge you to sit with the emotions before trying to bat them away. They are trying like hell to tell you something important.

2) Study the Team Dynamics

Often leaders are shielded from some interplay between their staff members. They may be unaware of mild conflict because it's downplayed in calmer times. But you'll want to keep an eye on how your staff members respond to one another during this magnification because lots of interesting data will emerge. You may notice someone being more sensitive to a team member's comments. You may see someone you thought was a team player, acting selfishly. You may notice someone you predicted would be the most needy instead showing promising leadership skills. Point is, your people have not become new people overnight. Do not think that this time of crisis has suddenly reprogrammed them and you now have a brand new staff (though it can feel like that some days). What you have here is an opportunity to watch your own team under a microscope and see them in a new way. As best you can, use this time to watch them with curiosity, and not judgment. It's an opportunity to look closely at those who've been closest to you.

3) Own Your Own Magnifiers

Some leaders felt their teams have changed overnight with the move to virtual and the impending doom around us. But when I ask how they, the leader, have changed, they don't know how to respond. One interaction highlighted how this goes: A CEO told me she's a constant worrier.

"How then," I asked, "has that been magnified?"

"Well, it hasn't," she said. "The team knows I'm a worrier, so they shouldn't be surprised by how much I'm calling to check on them each day."

"How much more are you calling them than you would during normal times?"

"Well that isn't fair," she replied. "I don't typically call them when things are normal. I just check in with them in person."

"How often did you check in with them in person when things were more normal?"

She thought for a moment. "Oh, maybe once a day. Or every other day."

"And how often are you calling them now?"

She laughed and said, "That's different! Things are different!"

"How much?"

She sighed and said, "About five times a day." Then she sighed again. "Minimum."

In her case, her worry had amped up the way she interacted with her staff, and she assumed they expected it. Following our talk, this leader held a meeting with her team to explain what her worry was and how it was magnifying into a lot of phone check-ins. Her team admitted they felt the sudden onslaught of calls signaled that she didn't trust them. This openness gave everyone the opportunity to express the ways they each were feeling magnified and collectively they figured out a way to acknowledge and work with everyone's magnification.

These are unprecedented and chaotic times, and seeing the negatives, the challenges, and the disadvantages is easy. As best you can, carve out space to look through the magnifying glass and see what you couldn't see as easily before. Because that will be endlessly helpful when we all get back to a world where the magnifying lens becomes clear glass again.


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