Being a good boss is hard all the time. You have to balance toughness and compassion, support and freedom, communication and oversharing. Now, in 2020, you have to do all those things while also trying to steer your business through a pandemic and quite possibly while stuck at home with stir-crazy kids.
But as hard as leading in 2020 is, Stanford professors Bob Sutton and Hayagreeva "Huggy" Rao insist it is possible to be a good boss in trying times. The two spent years researching effective leadership for their book Scaling Up Excellence, and in a recent webinar and McKinsey article they broke down the essential principles bosses need to keep in mind in times of crisis.
"A leader's job during the COVID-19 crisis and other trying times is to stop a disaster from turning into catastrophe," they write in McKinsey before running through principles to remember, including these.
In hard times, you very well may have to make tough calls. Layoffs may be unavoidable, or you may have to slash projects or pay. You don't have a choice about these decisions, but you do have a choice about how you carry them out. Take responsibility and communicate your decisions to your team with compassion.
Don't be like scooter startup Bird, which told 30 percent of its workforce they were laid off via a soulless group Zoom call. Deliver difficult news in person like a human. Expressing your regrets and your concern for your team might not seem like much, but according to Sutton and Rao, a little compassion makes a huge difference.
You can't make the world any less crazy, but you can at least make sure your staff is up to date on what's happening so nobody worries needlessly for lack of information. Telling your team that jobs are safe for the next month is better than telling them nothing at all, and telling them you'll have to make the call by a certain date about whether to let people go is preferable to leaving them to wonder every day that the ax might fall.
Hard times are easier to face together, so make sure that despite all the craziness going on, you make space for your team to bond. There are a ton of tips out there about how to do that even if you're working remotely, from a "water cooler chat" Slack channel to company game nights and other ways to keep your culture going strong virtually.
Both years of research by Google and others, as well as Sutton and Rao, insist that another key aspect of healthy teams is psychological safety -- the freedom to criticize and make mistakes in front of others without fearing adverse consequences. When you're navigating choppy waters together, it's especially important for your people to know you're open to new ideas, even if they sound a little crazy or imply the status quo is far from ideal.