Keeping Morale High During the Pandemic

by Allecia Harley, MPH on August 11, 2020

As leaders, we struggle with keeping morale high while the daily onslaught of challenges continues working against us.  How do we maintain our energy, encourage others to do their best work, and be our authentic selves?

Self-motivation is a learned skill

We have to be honest and recognize self-motivation is not a trait at birth.  Self-motivation is a skill that is developed and honed throughout our lives.  We can help our teams develop and grow their self-motivation by providing positive or negative reinforcement on the path to reaching common goals.

We do this by tapping into the triggers for motivation among our team members and providing praise, recognition, awards, money, and benefits in accordance with the level of output expected.

If you have a team of selfless people, you may be able to influence them to do the right thing. Still, even Michael Jordan, an intensely self-motivated individual, wanted to be compensated in a manner consistent with his level of output.  He stayed with his coach and team for several years, even though he was underpaid.  He did it because he was appreciated, given leadership roles, allowed to be a prima donna, and he had a contract.

Michael’s coach, Phil Jackson, couldn’t renegotiate his contract, but he could give him praise daily. Phil consistently recognized Jordan for his drive, determination, and athletic prowess.  Coach Jackson was a master of knowing when to push his players harder, and when to let them blow off steam, as he famously did with Dennis Rodman in the middle of a crucial season.

We can learn a lot from Phil Jackson as a coach.  He motivated his players by bringing them into his inner circle, sharing the decision-making, and being a part of their lives.  He showed us that you have to know your team on a personal level and be an empathetic authority.

Empathetic authority is key

According to Nancy Duarte, “. . . our employees are watching to see how confident we are and how we see the situation. They look to us for emotional fuel and signs that everything will be OK.”[i]

We can demonstrate our empathy and maintain our authority in the following ways:

  • Be available to listen to our teams’ fears and concerns
  • Regularly respond to their questions, even if you’ve answered it ten times already
  • Amplify opportunities for learning, training, and external support
  • Communicate openly and honestly, even when you don’t have an update

Whether you are a fan of Governor Cuomo or not, we can learn from his example on managing through a crisis.  He appeared on television every day as New York faced the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis and used this simple format:

  • Presentation of the numbers (you could use your metrics here)
  • PowerPoint slides showing visuals and actions planned or taken
  • Issued, clarified, or revised directives
  • Added personal comments or anecdotes

When we show up regularly, communicate what we know or don’t know, and make ourselves available to listen and answer questions, offer flexibility to our teams as they navigate the new normal, we are leading with empathetic authority.

We must take care of ourselves

Our teams rely on us, and we have to stay healthy, keep our heads in the game, and seek our trusted advisors for support.  Of course, this is easier said than done, but we lead by example.  We cannot ask our teams to do as we say, not as we do.

I know I don’t have to tell you how important it is to eat healthily, drink water, exercise, get plenty of fresh air, and rest, but we can always use a friendly reminder.  These simple statements are hard to do when our routines are upended. Still, they are more critical now, as we are learning the association between obesity and the severity of COVID-19 symptoms.

When we take care of ourselves, we hold the high ground and are in a better position to express care, concern, and empathy for others.

I’d like you to consider joining our upcoming webinar on “Bringing Strategy Back to Operations.”  You can register here.

[i] Duarte, N. “Five Ways to Motivate Your Team with Empathy and Authority”, MIT Sloan Management Review: May 2020;

Topics: #Covid-19, Management