How to lead diverse—and dispersed—teams through the COVID crisis

If you’ve led a Zoom meeting anytime in the past two months, you know the feeling. It’s hard online to “read the room” — to feel interpersonal energy, to spark fluid conversation, to know if what’s in the chat really reflects what’s on peoples’ minds.

For city leaders during the COVID-19 crisis, these challenges are even harder.

That’s because the problems mayors are working to solve — shortages of food and medical supplies, crushing unemployment, the complexities of reopening, and so much more — are way bigger than city hall. The people mayors are often convening online who sit outside their inner circle. They’re business people, healthcare experts, nonprofit leaders, and others they may or may not already know, all of whom are just as stressed out and exhausted as they are.

What they have going for them, of course, is the urgency in this moment. There’s also a deep desire, in every community, to help. Those faces on those Zooms — even the quiet ones who don’t always look at the camera — want to get stuff done, too.

How to navigate this dispersed world of teamwork and get the best out of it was a topic in the latest online coaching and learning session of the COVID-19 Local Response Initiative.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson led hundreds of mayors and senior staff in a discussion about how to do “teamwork on the fly” in a time of crisis. Collaborating across boundaries can be difficult even in good times, Edmondson said — and it’s an essential skill for them to master now.

“We’re stuck working at a distance, which is not easy. So this is where leadership comes in,” Edmondson said. “It starts with an ambitious and positive note: saying, we’re going to go for it. We’re going to be doing something really, really hard — and we’re going to succeed at it.”

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To help mayors navigate these challenges, Edmondson laid out two sets of things that go into effective teaming.

She called the first set of considerations “the hardware.” These are the technical or managerial aspects of leading a team, such as scoping out the work, assigning roles and responsibilities, delegating tasks, and creating communication channels for checking in and feedback. In a fast-moving crisis where teams are working remotely, all of this requires over-communication about who is doing what, Edmondson said. It also demands recognition that things are in flux, and everyone must learn and adapt quickly along the way.

And the second set, she called the “the software.” These are the interpersonal aspects of leadership that help people get comfortable with a new way of working. For example, it’s critical to show empathy in a time of crisis — especially when it may be hard to read a colleague’s body language through their webcam. It’s also important to continually remind teams of their shared purpose. “Especially in a crisis, you can easily fall into the trap of thinking the purpose is self-evident,” Edmondson said. “You have to reenergize and remind people, sometimes multiple times a day, to get back in a motivating awareness of the shared purpose.”

A critical piece of software, Edmondson said, is establishing psychological safety. That’s the belief that it’s safe to speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, or failures, and that every voice in the team will be welcome. It’s not about being nice or avoiding conflict. Rather, it’s about promoting candor and stressing that an unprecedented crisis calls for novel ideas and a willingness to experiment.

[Read: ‘Teaming’ in and out of City Hall]

Edmondson, who’s written extensively about the ways organizations can create psychological safety, said a lot of people have been asking her lately about whether it’s in shorter supply in workplaces during the current crisis. Her answer: Not necessarily. “Fears related to COVID-19 are very obvious, explicit, and discussable — it’s a shared experience, and we’re all in it at the same time,” Edmondson said. “And our primary concern is: What can we do? How can we team up to figure out a viable path forward?”

“There’s a silver lining here, which is that these are the very conditions that promote innovation.”

See more takeaways and slides from Amy Edmondson’s talk with mayors.

(Photo: Shutterstock )

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