Expert Tips for Helping Teams Manage Fear

As states begin to relax stay-at-home orders and businesses prepare to reopen after pandemic-related closures, managers will play a crucial role in helping their teams work effectively, said David Lebel, who teaches organizational behavior in Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.  

The tone they set can help their teams face the challenges of working effectively in these anxiety-producing times.

David Lebel in a black suit and dark blue tie“Fear typically is focused on a specific tangible thing, but because the novel coronavirus is new, essentially invisible and less tangible, the anxiety it creates can be broader and more diffuse,” he said. “Uncertainty and lack of control contribute to fear.”

His own research suggests that open, supportive leaders help employees adapt to uncertainty and be proactive in work settings.

And, while a moderate level of fear can be helpful in facing challenges, “It’s known that too much impairs functioning—negatively affecting concentration, memory and decision-making,” he said.

Helping teams cope with fear and anxiety is especially relevant for leaders of teams that will operate face to face, but they apply as well to managers whose teams have been separated and continue to work remotely.

For example, leaders could start a meeting by acknowledging their own fears or personally sharing what they’ve been struggling with. Leaders should be specific, describing their challenges with juggling work demands and coordinating their kids’ home school schedules or losing sleep. This creates a norm within the group, encouraging others to do the same. Leaders can then follow up with those who seem anxious during the meeting with a personal email or quick check-in call.  

To reduce fear, it’s essential to acknowledge the fear, develop some sense of control and find support from a close-knit group of coworkers or confident leaders, Lebel said.

Here are his tips for managers:

  • Acknowledge your fears and let your employees do the same.
  • Provide honest communication.
  • Be a calm and proactive role model.
  • Foster connection and cohesiveness within your group. Difficult as it may be amid social distancing, fear is reduced when individuals feel supported.  

“We are facing a unique situation in which many of us cannot go about our daily routines,” he said. “This makes the situation more challenging and makes the need for effective role models and social support from others even more important.”