University of Wisconsin–Madison

Leading Teams During Disruption

When the University of Wisconsin–Madison navigates disruptive events, you and your employees may have many questions and concerns. Leading a team during uncertain times requires many skills. You need to support both yourself and your employees. We are here to support you to be the best leader you can be. The tools and recommendations on this page are specifically designed for you to respond with confidence and care to your team’s needs and questions in these times.

"The true test of leadership is how well you function in a crisis. "

Brian Tracy

Be aware of your own emotions

  • Notice and name how you are feeling about the situation.
  • Identify your potential challenges.
  • Identify your potential successes.

Take care of your own well-being

  • Be forgiving of yourself.  Not everything is going to go perfectly—do your best.
  • Give yourself the time it takes to supervise well.
  • Set your own boundaries and discuss with your team.

Understand HR policies and procedures

  • Take time to understand the information to the best of your ability before you check in with your employees.
  • Reach out to HR if you have questions.
  • Identify what you know and what you don’t.

Check in with your employees (as individuals and as teams)

  • Acknowledge that these are difficult times with a lot of uncertainty.
  • Share what you know and what you don’t know.
  • Share how this will change your own work.
    • Communicate how (email, text, phone, etc.) and when you will be available – remember your own boundaries matter!
  • Acknowledge that this is what we know for now and it could change in the future.
  • Acknowledge that there is a disruption in both work and personal lives.
  • Find out how they feel about any policies put in place as a result of the disruptive event.
  • What questions do they have about the policies and how they will be implemented?
  • If you don’t have an answer, reach out to HR for answers, and follow up with the employee in a timely manner.
  • Use affirming language: “That’s a great question, I’m going to write that down. This is what I know about it. This is what I don’t know about it. This is what I can try to find out.”
  • Listen to all verbal and non-verbal cues (including body language, sounds, and pauses). Name what you are noticing, for example, “I heard a sigh.” Pay attention to what you are and are not hearing from your employees.
  • Be open and curious to what is being shared, even if it isn’t what you expected.
  • Use continuous listening and communication. Check in with your employees regularly throughout this change.

Possible check-in questions:

  • How are you doing?
  • Are we meeting enough?
  • Are you getting what you need from our team meetings?
  • What questions do you have?
  • What is surprising to you about this situation?
  • What is challenging for you?
  • What is something new that you have learned during this time?
  • What is something you could contribute to the team?
  • What support do you need?
  • How are you feeling about your workload?
  • What do you need to thrive during this time?

Discuss team and individual expectations

  • Revisit your team’s expectations prior to the disruptive event.
  • Remember, expectations include both work output (what gets done) and behavior/process (how it gets done). Be sure to discuss both.
  • Understand each employee’s current workload.
    • Be clear about your own expectations and what is realistic for the workload of others. If you aren’t sure, consult with HR, the Employee Assistance Office, or LifeMatters. Find out what other supervisors in your area are expecting.
    • Adjust work expectations based on the number of days/hours an employee will be working and any other constraints an employee may have.
    • Determine what work needs to be done versus what is nice to have done to help determine priorities.
    • Ensure equitable workload distribution among employees where applicable.
  • Set realistic expectations. Consider the following questions:
    • What does this performance look like?
    • What does success look like during this time?
    • What steps need to be taken in order to be successful?
    • What do the behaviors look like?
    • What is the same or different for performance now than it was prior to the disruptive event?
  • Create transparency with the whole team by sharing individual expectations and discussing (and potentially creating) team expectations.
  • Sample template for team working agreements

Possible questions to ask your team when creating mutual expectations:

  • What are our team’s or unit’s values and what do they mean to you?
  • What would success for our team look like? Both in what we produce and how we operate or work together.
  • Where are we falling short?
  • What is the impact on our team or customers if we fall short in our work?
  • What themes have emerged that the team wants to focus on?
  • What will it look like if the team is practicing these themes?

Maintain team morale

  • Reiterate the value that each employee contributes to the team, department, and UW. Remind them that their contributions matter.
  • Provide autonomy to employees in their work where appropriate.
  • Trust that your team is doing the work, while you are checking in.
  • People are motivated by how they feel. Check in with how your employees are feeling.
  • Identify ‘quick wins’ where your team and individuals could feel successful.
  • Celebrate the successes of individuals and the team.
  • Be available and accessible to your team.
  • Stay connected.
  • Give options for how to connect (video, phone, chat, etc.).

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