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I’ve written a few articles over the past weeks which have touched on the current COVID-19 global outbreak. Things are likely to get worse before they start getting better, so I felt this week’s article would serve as a keystone for the series.

The media are well known for sensationalizing threats and artificially elevating fear levels among the public. The 2001 “Summer of the Shark” was just one example of this phenomenon which subsided only when the 9/11 attacks occurred later that year. However, putting media hyperbole aside, the progressive global spread of this disease is a valid cause for concern.

While many project managers might not have direct reporting responsibilities over their team members, we are still in a leadership role and likely have more daily interactions with these folks than their people managers. As such, we have a responsibility to understand their fears and doubts and help them cope with those in a productive manner.

So what are some of the things we should be doing when such prolonged crises occur?

  • Help to control the spread of misinformation. Most of us are not experts on global threats, but we should take the time to identify legitimate sources of knowledge and share those with our team members.
  • Create a safe space for team members to express their concerns. While psychological safety within teams is important at all times, it is that much more important during a crisis. We want our team members to share their fears with each other without bottling them up because they are feeling ashamed or embarrassed to do so. Recognize that just as each of us has a different risk appetite, we will have varying perceptions of the severity of this situation. But watch out for team members spending excessive time discussing or obsessing over the crisis as negativity begets negativity.
  • Encourage safe behaviors. Frequent hand disinfecting or washing and avoiding the unnecessary touching of one’s face appear to be the best current defenses against this disease. Make sure that cleaning supplies are readily available to address the former and work with the team to find creative, fun ways of addressing the latter. For example, a “face touching” penalty jar could be setup in which team members are asked to deposit some small change whenever they unnecessarily touch their faces. Have the team discover their own special way of greeting one another – elbow bumps, bowing or saying “Namaste” are just a few examples.
  • Look after ourselves. We are of no use to our team members if we are stressed, overly tired, or suppressing our fears. The phrase “Physician, heal thyself” is especially apropos.

We also need to consider the resilience of our plans from a people perspective.

Consider what would happen if one or more of your team members were to get sick and be quarantined for a period of time. Could you still meet the success criteria for the project, and if not, what steps could you take to protect at least the primary objectives? Could work be done effectively in a virtual manner if your company mandates this? While your organization probably has a business continuity plan, how will you apply that to your project?

In the eye of the storm, You remain in control” – Ryan Stevenson



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