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How to Lead with Bounded Optimism—Through the Good and the Bad
Samantha McLaren

By: Samantha McLaren on April 22nd, 2020

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How to Lead with Bounded Optimism—Through the Good and the Bad

Employee Experience

Est. Read Time: 3 min.

In the age of coronavirus, many business leaders and HR professionals are left wondering: How can I best support employees in a rapidly shifting work environment? What can I do to inspire clarity amidst uncertainty? How much information should I share to keep my workforce informed—without creating unnecessary anxiety?


These are all valid concerns, and striking the right balance is critical. Your response to this situation and the way you treat employees during it may have a lasting impact on your brand—shaping the way employees and the public at large views your company long after this crisis has passed. In fact, review site Glassdoor has already noticed an uptick in employee reviews, 85% of which expressed dissatisfaction with their employer’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. 


With employees looking to you for guidance, compassion, and inspiration, it’s important to display appropriate levels of both determination and concern. That’s why leading with bounded optimism is such a valuable strategy during times of crisis. 


As management consulting firm McKinsey & Company puts it, bounded optimism is “confidence combined with realism.” This is not the same as unbounded optimism, which may ultimately do more harm than good. Though leaders may be tempted to shield employees from hardship, maintaining credibility in times of crisis means confronting difficult truths. If you don’t, employees may feel pressured to pick up the slack by becoming your company’s resident realists—causing spirits to drop.


Bounded optimism means expressing faith in your company’s future, without downplaying the present challenges posed by COVID-19. Here are three tips to help you put this powerful leadership style into practice so you can maintain employee engagement and morale. 


Communicate early and often 

In times of uncertainty, staying silent may feel like the safest option. Unfortunately, doing so can easily alienate employees—leaving them to rely on rumors and assume the worst. 


Aim to be transparent without being alarmist. If company sales are stalling due to the economic downturn, employees don’t need a by-the-minute breakdown of everything that’s going wrong. But they deserve a high-level understanding of steps the company is taking to overcome the challenge.


Instead of simply telling employees that your organization will weather this storm, be their lighthouse, illuminating the way. Your team will appreciate your candor—and feel more confident about the path ahead.


Put empathy at the forefront 

Whether they’re recovering from illness, caring for sick family members or children home from school, or just struggling with the additional stress and anxiety that this situation has created, your employees are dealing with a lot right now. So while you want to project confidence, it’s crucial to temper this with empathy and compassion to avoid coming across as insensitive. 


Make a point of regularly checking in with your people during this time. Start every conversation by asking about what’s going on in their life, and tell them a little about your own situation to build trust. During group calls, take a moment to thank everyone for their hard work before getting into the meat of the discussion. A few words might not seem like much, but it shows that you’re listening, and that you care. 


Take time for self-care

Before you can help others, you have to take care of yourself. 


You're allowed to feel stressed right now—it’s only human. But it’s also important to monitor your emotions to ensure you’re not letting that stress filter down to your employees. 


Focus on putting yourself in a healthy headspace for the workday, either by meditating, skipping the morning news, or finding another strategy that works for you. This will not only set a positive example for others, but will allow you to lead from a place of mental clarity—so your optimism will come naturally. 


Connecting with others in your same position can shine light on other leadership best practices. Join our next virtual meetup to connect with HR leaders across the globe.

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About Samantha McLaren

Scottish-born Samantha McLaren is a copywriter and editor with a specialty for the recruiting and HR space. She has written dozens of articles on topics ranging from employee retention and engagement to employer branding, company culture, and management strategies.