How should the COVID-19 Crisis change the way leaders engage with their teams? This question came into focus for me while I sat in on a “check-in” call with a senior health-care company executive and her reports about COVID-19 impacts on their business. The team openly and authentically shared the emotional challenges that they – and the people who reported to them – were facing. It was an inspiring conversation.

Members of this senior team considered themselves fortunate for not having been severely impacted, professionally, or personally, by the Crisis. However, I was impressed by how aware they were that this was less true for their own teams and people further down in the organization.

They had been planning an organizational transformation when the COVID-19 storm struck. Now that crisis-management plans were in place, they were re-focusing on the change and discussing the extent and pace at which they would proceed.

They recognized that their people already were dealing with a lot. At one point, one of the leaders said, “We need to understand that we are in the same storm, but in very different boats.” He and we knew this was not an original quote (its origins are not clear), but it crystallized the conversation, highlighting the need for them to engage their teams in how – and how fast – to move forward.

The team wanted to re-engage their people to push forward with the transformation. However, they realized that it could easily be the proverbial straw that broke some people’s backs. So how best could they have the right conversations? To paraphrase one leader, “How can we show them that we have the backbone that sustains their confidence and the heart to understand the stresses they are experiencing.”

As the discussion continued became it clear that there was a range of “dimensions of impact” that COVID-19 was having on their teams – health, economic, work/family. Yes, we are in navigating the storm in different boats, some very comfortable, and some flimsy and leaking, but how do we understand the most important differences in what people were experiencing? And what do we do with that understanding?

This is a core dilemma that leaders everywhere currently are facing: how to be understanding while still pushing forward to achieve essential objectives. After all, the essence of the job of the leader is to mobilize, focus, and sustain the energy of their people. But doing so requires knowing where potential energy is or isn’t. I suspect that many leaders want to have these sorts of conversations with their teams, but aren’t sure how to open up the discussion or worry about where it would lead. Others may be assuming that because they are OK, everyone else is too, which is certainly not the case.

As I listened to them describe the wide array of energy-draining challenges their people faced, I realized that we don’t have a useful framework for talking about the stresses the crisis has created. As a result, we may be both under-estimating and over-estimating its impact. For some, the magnitude of the challenges may make it virtually impossible to take on more, while others may have hidden reserves of energy that you can tap.

So I quickly sketched one out, focusing on your health risk, extent of economic insecurity, work/family stresses (children being homeschooled), and strength of the support network on which to depend. For each dimension, I defined a spectrum and assigned a 0 to 10 point system with the total then divided by 4. The result is a quick-and-dirty “COVID-19 Stress Index,” ranging from 0 to 10. Take a look at the table below and see where you end up. Note that some of these stress categories could involve immediate family members (e.g., a parent who is at high risk, a brother or sister who has lost their job) and not just you.

Impact Dimensions
COVID-19 Health RiskLow  0  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   High
Economic InsecurityLow  0  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   High
Work/Family StressesLow  0  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   High
Support NetworkLow  0  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10   High
COVID-19 Stress Index
(0 – 10)
Total your scores and divide by 4:

Now think about the implications for members of your team and others whom you would like to mobilize to get essential things done. Where are their scores and what are the implications for their reserves of energy?

The value of this exercise lies primarily in helping you open up a conversation with your people about where they really are, and the implications for the reserves of energy – or lack thereof – that can be tapped to move things forward. It also creates an opportunity for people to “volunteer” in two senses, (1) in terms of what they are willing to share about their levels of stress and worry, and (2) in terms of feeling like they have a choice about taking on additional burdens.

The deeper insight from the team’s conversation was: this is a time to look for volunteers and not conscripts. So consider using it as a starting point for having a conversation with your team about where they really are in energetic terms.

If you decide to engage in this exploration with your team, however, be prepared to show some empathy for where they are and understanding of why they may have limited reserves to contribute. Critically, don’t let a lack of reserves lead you to make negative judgments about those who are running on fumes at the moment. Instead, be accepting and have confidence that they will get to better, more energetic places with time.

To me, the most important takeaways from the conversation were:

  • Understand where your people really are in terms of the stresses they are facing and the implication for their energy levels.
  • Look for the “volunteers” prepared to devote their reserves of energy to move things forward.
  • Be accepting that there may be some people who can’t do that … at least for now.