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Like a Boss: “How do I lead a distracted team through chaotic times?”

October 6, 2020
By

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.  

Dear Boss,

With everything going on in the news and the election right now, my staff is — not surprisingly — distracted. This month has seemed harder than ever to keep our employees on task; replies and responses are slower, and, as a manager talking about (sometimes mundane) goals and tasks, it’s hard to compete for attention with the onslaught of breaking news alerts. Any advice on how to keep the team focused? Any advice for me? (If I’m honest, I’m also glued to Twitter these days.)

Yours,

Distracted in Boston


Dear Distracted,

To paraphrase the old proverb/curse: We are living in interesting times. The daily (hourly?) news cycle is an assault on our norms, full of tumult and social upheaval. In this ramped-up attention economy, we don’t have time to process one enormous sea change before the next one arrives. It’s been like this for months. To put it in the mildest terms, we’re collectively anxious and fatigued — many of us don’t feel safe — which makes accomplishing one’s best work a challenge, if not a downright impossibility. 

So let’s start by saying: this is not a time to push business as usual. This is not a time to get your employees in line. This is the time to pull out the most humane and human tools in your leadership toolbox — compassion, light-heartedness, and understanding. It’s a time to support your team’s mental health, to build community, and to work outside of “normal” while still ensuring the essential work gets done. It’s a tall order for a leader, yes! Here’s some advice on how to pull it off. (And make sure to check out Lattice’s excellent guide for supporting employees before, during, and after Election Day.)

Acknowledge What’s Happening, But Don’t Overdo It

Because you are a human leader and not a robot dictator, it’s okay to say “I know this is a strange time to be launching a marketing campaign/analytics dashboard/TPS report. I know the news is hella distracting/your screen time app gave you a shrug emoji instead of an hour count this week. I know you might be having a hard time working right now and here are some ways we’ll be addressing this.” However, don’t dwell in the negative news, acknowledge it, and move on. 

Put Things in Perspective

Whenever you can, emphasize and reiterate to your staff a sense of safety and calm. Remind them of their value, of the value of your work community, of recent wins, and, if possible, the security of your company right now.

Lead by Example

Stay present and visible, even while working remotely. Answer emails and DMs in a timely fashion. Don’t flake on staff meetings or 1:1s. Check in with employees who aren’t reaching out. If your expectation is that your staff stay engaged, show them how. Engagement does not mean overwork: Equally, model self-care, which can look like this: “Hey, I’ve completed today’s essential tasks. I’m taking a necessary mental health break and will be offline for the next hour. I’d love to see you all do the same.” Then take that hour for yourself in earnest — preferably off Twitter!

Give Concrete, Easy-to-Follow Instruction

When employees are anxious or distracted, easy-to-follow task lists may help them focus. First, break the team’s larger monthly or quarterly goals into smaller component parts that can be managed in shorter bursts of time. Next, prepare staff members with step-by-step instruction plans for that week’s goals. Having a specific map they can follow will help keep team members on task and make it easier for them (and you) to hold themselves accountable. 

Create Positive Distractions 

Fear and anxiety from this news cycle can become all-consuming, causing employees to fixate and preventing them from working productively. Uplifting distractions — a fun new project which requires attention and inter-employee collaboration, a twice-weekly check-in when everyone shares something positive — can be a balm that gets them out of the doomscroll and into working in a more meaningful way. 


Lattice’s people management software helps you build feedback and recognition into your team's everyday routines. We bring employee engagement surveys, performance reviews, and employee career development together in one platform, giving your company an edge in retaining top talent. To learn how Lattice helps over 1,850 companies keep employee turnover at bay, watch a product tour or book a demo today.