Let down in lockdown: when your manager can’t cope in a crisis

Apr 27, 2020

5 mins

Let down in lockdown: when your manager can’t cope in a crisis
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

For many managers, the current pandemic has meant diving headlong into the world of remote working. It’s a whole new frontier—and one for which they may not be well-equipped. Sadly, it’s the staff who suffer the consequences. Some managers are a bit too intrusive. Some seem as green as a newcomer. A few suffer from anxiety and could do with some supervision. So here are a few ways to manage your manager through these challenging times.

The control freak

This type is known for micromanaging employees in the office—and during the lockdown, they have gone into overdrive. The control freak sees telecommuting as just a way of slacking off at the company’s expense. “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” is their refrain. For some weeks now, your manager has been firing off messages packed with detailed instructions and seems to get suspicious if you take longer than 15 minutes to reply. Their behavior is wearing you and your colleagues out.

Some managers worry that once their backs are turned, their teams will be less productive and efficient. This approach to management is common in companies that had a culture of presenteeism before the lockdown began. While it may be naive to think you can change your manager in just a few weeks, there are some steps you can take towards gaining their trust. Be assertive: stand up for yourself without being aggressive. Keep in mind that bosses who behave like “dictators” often have low self-confidence, which leads to added stress for everyone on the team. Most importantly, take a proactive approach. As these managers fear what lies beyond their control, show yours that there is nothing to worry about and that you are making good progress, even from a distance. Set up a schedule with weekly objectives—ensuring they are both reasonable and measurable—and regularly update your manager on your progress.

The nervous wreck

This manager is likely to be overwhelmed by multiple fears, such as the failure of the team to meet targets, the company’s possible collapse, or even the health of their loved ones. All of that is a recipe for stress, which can be contagious, thus threatening the entire team’s mental well-being.

Research on emotional contagion has shown that employees naturally look to their managers for how to react when faced with sudden change. No one knows how the current crisis will end. Your manager probably feels powerless, as does everyone in the rest of the company – right up to the very top! This is what the American psychologist, author, and emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman calls the “trickle-down” effect.

If that’s the case for you, what can you do about it? This is where good communication comes in. When speaking with your manager and in team meetings, you should voice any general anxieties around the current situation and express your faith in the abilities of your colleagues and the team. This vote of confidence in your manager can help to relieve the pressure they feel so that they are no longer weighed down by their sense of responsibility. You can also try to help everyone let off a little steam by suggesting social interactions that focus on the positives. For example, the first 10 minutes of each catch-up or meeting could be dedicated to talking about things unrelated to work, as a way to avoid jumping into the stresses of the job some might be feeling at this time.

The emotionally challenged

This unprecedented transition to telecommuting has forced many people to adjust to new schedules and revisit how they organize their lives both personally and professionally. With employees juggling the challenges of spotty internet connections, the absence of a genuine workspace, and the presence of children—who may not be the most conscientious office mates – the new workday can come with plenty of unforeseen challenges! Some managers, especially those not trying to work under such conditions, might find it hard to relate to the realities of their team members.

Since you can’t fully control your working environment in lockdown, your manager should be mindful that distractions are parred for the course. You might even need to adjust your work schedule. One simple solution is to have a frank discussion about these “constraints” and offer up solutions. Discuss your lockdown situation with your manager. Feel free to tell them, “My partner looks after the kids in the morning and I take them in the afternoon, so it’s better for me to have meetings earlier” or even “My neighbor is now a DIY enthusiast and I’d like to be able to tell them when I’m likely to have work calls and meetings so that noise is not a problem.”

The easily offended

This manager gets annoyed when you send an email innocently asking for news on the progress of an important project. It isn’t the first time you and your colleagues have been on the receiving end of a serious overreaction either. That said, it would be surprising if this never happened. Given the fact that only 7% of communication is verbal, there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation when working remotely. Whenever face-to-face communication is taken out of the equation, it can be easy to get the wrong end of the stick.

That’s because, according to Hanlon’s razor theory, people have a natural defense mechanism that leads them to assume the worst. (It’s often expressed as, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”) That’s why emails and instant messages can be troublesome—they are very easy to misinterpret. To make communicating easier and avoid misunderstandings, opt for remote meetings instead of emails and phone calls, even if that means having a quick catch-up each day. If it fits in with the company culture, you can add emojis to your emails and instant messages. This simple trick can help to prevent communication mishaps.

The ghost

This manager has dropped off the radar. They share little to no information with you and the rest of the team. You get the odd email and list of tasks to complete but had to hear from a colleague on another team about a new plan for short-time working. Feedback is spotty at best and you’re in the dark about what exactly your manager is up to—not to mention the rest of the team—unless you ask them outright.

You’re not alone. A study conducted in 2015 found that eight out of nine common complaints about managers mentioned behavior that stemmed from them being absent such as a lack of feedback, communication or clearly defined tasks. In lockdown, this situation can become even more difficult—particularly since how you react can be a delicate matter when you don’t know the reason for the radio silence.

It could be that your manager isn’t confident in the use of digital tools. Perhaps someone close to them is sick. Maybe your manager has simply decided to lay low for a while. When their ghosting becomes an issue, however, the first step is to try to find out why it’s happening. You might ask, “Is there a good time of day to get in touch about my project?” Or you could say, “What’s the best way to get in touch if I need help on such and such a task?” Their response to the question about communication tools might give you a clue as to the reason for their behavior.

If you don’t get a good answer and you need help, politely confront your manager about their absence. They might be compelled to make some changes or even assign an “interim” manager to support you. As a last resort, we recommend discussing the situation with your HR department, who will also be working remotely, or organizing things with your colleagues so that you can all get your work done regardless of your manager’s behavior.

Without experience or training in managing staff from a distance, managers who don’t naturally possess the necessary skills will find it hard to adapt their approach. While this is not an excuse, it does go a long way toward explaining their ineptitude. But tough times call for tough measures. Now is the time to take the initiative, even if it means questioning the hierarchy and the usual way of doing things so you can find your solutions. Who knows? You might find that you’ve got what it takes to get your team through this crisis.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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