How to Be a Supportive Manager When Times Are Tough

How to Be a Supportive Manager When Times Are Tough

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As disturbing world events continue to unfold, it’s understandable that your team’s minds are elsewhere. As a manager, what can you do to support your team right now? How do you balance the need for compassion with the need to still get work done? The author offers recommendations for how to manage through uncertain times. To start, take some time to understand your own emotions. You’ll be better able to support your team and model resiliency if you acknowledge and manage any stress and anxiety you feel yourself. It’s also important not to bottle your emotions, or to expect employees to do the same. Encourage self-compassion, ask people what they need, and model self-care.

It’s never easy to manage people through tough times. But when the news is disturbing, and you know your team’s minds are understandably elsewhere, it can be particularly hard to know how to best support your people. How do you balance your desire to be compassionate with the need to continue to get work done? What do you say — or not say? And what should you do if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all as well?

What the Experts Say

Most of us feel overwhelmed, upset, and anxious when faced with uncertainty. “We have a fundamental neuroanatomy that orients us toward stress in highly charged times,” explains Rich Fernandez, CEO of SIY Leadership Institute. And this can start an unhealthy cycle: “A symptom of distraction is more distraction. Then we feel more anxious,” says Susan David, a founder of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital and author of Emotional Agility. On a team, these feelings can be contagious. “We subtly pick up on the emotions and start to feel or mimic them ourselves,” she explains. Fernandez believes in “compassionate management,” where you “seek to understand how you can be of service and benefit to employees while balancing the need to keep them on task.” Here are practical ways to do both of those things while offering support.

Take time to process your own emotions

You’ll be better able to support your team and model resiliency if you acknowledge and manage any stress and anxiety you feel yourself. Start by taking the time to understand what you’re feeling. “You want to label your emotions. Put distance between yourself and them so that you can make a conscious decision about how to act in a way that’s in line with your values,” David says. Even when world events feel like they are spiraling out of control, “you still get to choose whom you want to be,” David explains. Ask yourself: What’s most important to me? “If one of your core values is to be collaborative, for example, ask, ‘How can I help people feel like they’re part of the team?’”

Acknowledge what’s happening 

Bottling your emotions, or expecting employees to do the same, can be counterproductive. These feelings of concern and distress are very real and “can’t be ignored, denied, or repressed,” says Fernandez. Pretending that everything is fine, or just trying to go about work as if nothing is going on, can cause people to disengage or to feel resentful. Instead, directly address the issue, acknowledging that people may be on edge and that things are uncertain. At the same time, you should avoid brooding, where you get stuck in a negative spiral. Acknowledge how people are feeling, but then “move on to talk about how you want to act as a team,” David says. You can do this by asking, “How do we want to treat one another during these times?” Members might agree that they want to continue delivering a quality product to clients while being respectful and kind to one another, for example. “It helps a team stay grounded when you reassert and reaffirm a shared sense of purpose,” says David.

Encourage self-compassion

Some of your team members may be looking around and wondering how their colleagues are keeping it together while they’re losing sleep. Encourage them to have some self-compassion and acknowledge that stress is a normal, physiological response to feeling out of control or threatened. “Help staff recognize that change can bring about a lack of agency,” says David, which can send our brains and bodies into overdrive. If you’re feeling stressed, admit it, or talk about previous situations in which you’ve felt anxiety, so they know they’re not alone.

Ask people what they need

Talk with employees one-on-one and let them describe what they’re going through. Do some “perspective-taking by putting yourself in their shoes,” says Fernandez. You want to “truly understand what they think and feel, even if you don’t agree or feel the same thing.” This empathy forms the basis of trust so that you can move into problem-solving mode. And don’t assume that everyone needs the same things. Fernandez suggests saying, “It’s a tough time for many people. What would be most helpful at the moment? Let’s think about it together, because I want to help and make sure you can navigate the current challenges so you can be your best.” Maybe they need some extra guidance on how to reduce distractions or advice on re-prioritizing their work. You might also give people more flexibility in dictating their work schedule, and “encourage them to balance the work to be accomplished with important self-care needs and their life outside work,” Fernandez says.

Model self-care

Sleep, exercise, and good nutrition are proven to help with resilience. So encourage your team members to take care of themselves, says David. For example, if an employee tells you they’re taking their phone to bed to read the news, you might share that you’ve been trying to leave yours in a separate room. If people tell you that they’re having trouble staying off Twitter during the day, invite them to go out for a walk during your next check-in (you can do this virtually by having a phone chat while walking in your respective neighborhoods). Of course, it’s not a manager’s place to dictate these behaviors, but it’s OK to share what’s worked for you. Mindful breathing also helps to calm anxiety and increase focus, Fernandez says. Although it may seem awkward to remind your staff to inhale and exhale, you can share the research on its benefits.

Principles to Remember


  • Normalize stress — it’s a common physiological response to uncertainty
  • Help your team feel grounded by reaffirming your shared purpose
  • Encourage people to take care of themselves in whatever small ways help build their resilience


  • Neglect your own anxiety and concerns
  • Ignore people’s emotions
  • Assume that everyone on your team needs the same types or level of support

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from “How to Keep Your Team Focused and Productive During Uncertain Times,” which originally published in March 2017. 

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