5 ways to motivate your team with empathy and authority

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

A crisis pressure-tests leadership and culture. Many new values are formed under the strain, and employees gain new perspectives on their organization and its leadership. Communication is the key to keeping them motivated and productive in a season of enormous distraction.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t my first financial crisis. No matter how well you run a business, external forces will test you, your culture, and your resolve. Leaders are constantly processing the future, and our employees are watching to see how confident we are and how clearly we see the situation. They look to us for emotional fuel and signs that everything will be OK.

Techniques to Motivate Through a Crisis

Five communication techniques have helped me build trust with, connect with, and motivate my employees during high-pressure times.

Mix up your delivery channels

In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, I sent out email memos with subject lines such as “COVID Memo #4.” These had situational information on where I was getting my news, what I was doing about the business, and what short-term things employees could do to help at work. Some were instructional, like “Start to work from home today” or “Let’s rally behind parents with kids.” Some had reflections in them. But all of them were sincere. Every time one went out, I received grateful notes back.

At the end of a particularly scary week of news, I decided to send out a video I recorded privately on Zoom. It was clear and measured. It had hope, but it was honest about what we were all hearing.

Let your employees ask questions

I soon realized that it wasn’t enough to communicate out. I had to actively listen to what my employees had to say. Even if you think you know what questions are on your employees’ minds, giving them the opportunity to ask makes all the difference in how “heard” they feel.

We started an ANA (Ask Nancy Anything) process. I really mean it, in terms of my commitment to transparency — I’ll answer any question from our staff. We use a polling tool called Slido, where employees can submit questions and vote up the ones they want me to answer. Everyone in the company can see what’s on everyone else’s minds. They also know I’m willing to respond to even the tough questions or admit that I don’t have all the answers. It’s important to not randomly select questions to address, because employees will notice if you’re skirting an issue that’s on all their minds. If you have a high-performing team, the questions will be productive and push the organization forward.

Side note: If you decide to answer employee questions by video, keep your camera on and make sure you look straight into the lens when speaking. Make sure your team sees the sincerity in your eyes so they feel that you’re speaking directly to them.

Tell stories

One of our company’s values is to let people know they belong here, and stories are a great way to do that.

Silicon Valley, where we are based, had issued shelter-in-place orders much earlier than anywhere else in the U.S., and it scared people. The first Monday after that government announcement, I carved out 30 minutes from our staff meeting to tell stories. In 32 years, this was the fifth financial crisis hitting our business through external forces. We told a story from each season of crisis and explained what we learned, how each crisis shaped our values, and how we emerged stronger — different, but stronger.

I have to say, in the week that followed that staff meeting, when everyone could have been distracted and unproductive, the team killed it. That first week sheltering in place, the team redesigned four training products to virtual format, which was no easy feat. Many of them stayed up late to get this new format to market to minimize the hit to our revenue.

Stories don’t just help people feel like they belong to something, they motivate people — because they subtly communicate why people’s actions will have meaning and value. I wonder whether that product would have gone to market so quickly without the stories of resilience that Monday. That week was one of our finest hours.

Leverage symbols

Be on the lookout for new symbols that can take on potent meaning in this season. Here’s one that emerged for us: We hold optional internal employee bonding events on Zoom. At one meeting early in this crisis, an employee shared stories about what she had learned in the past year from her son, who has Down syndrome. She said he had taught her to be brave, and she used the American Sign Language sign for brave. That sign has become the symbol of the season, and we end a lot of meetings with that gesture.

Recommunicate the vision

A strong and consistent company vision helps your team members feel like they’re building something great and heading toward their purpose. If you’ve been good at establishing a vision and think it will stay the same on the other side of this crisis, make sure to remind people of the longer journey. Hopefully, you are still leading them to the same place, but you are also navigating the adversity of an unexpected detour.As a leader, when you state and restate your vision, you provide stability and build trust — the two major factors in inspiring and motivating people. At the end of one of my employee videos, I leaned way into the camera and reminded the team that we’re all still going to the same place and that when we get there and look back, we’ll all be proud of what we did in this season.

Leading isn’t for the fearful.

It can also help them be productive while getting there.

A version of this article originally appeared in MIT SMR.

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