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Leading through a crisis

Written by Tom Skiba PhD

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As COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, your team will likely have to change the ways you work and live. Many of your employees might have already switched to working remotely, and are likely feeling isolated and uncertain about the future. Others might be focused on ensuring their loved ones are cared for, or coping with illness in their families. And still others might be navigating their partner’s temporary or permanent job loss. 

In these moments, your actions can make a big difference. During times of uncertainty humans have a natural tendency to monitor for threats, injustice, and other risks. Expect to feel like your every comment and action is under intense scrutiny from the people that rely on you. 

Here are four steps we recommend leaders take that make a difference in leading through a crisis. 

Be visible and reachable

During a crisis, it’s more important than ever for you to show you are being responsive and deliberate in your approach. Make sure to schedule regular time with employees to provide status updates and address concerns. When possible, demonstrate that you are working with experts to take necessary actions for the good of the group. You want to avoid looking like you are avoiding public displays of leadership, it only furthers the resistance and distrust of those who rely on them. Something as simple as a daily 15 minute lunchtime address over VC can make a significant difference over time. 

Address concerns (even if you don’t have all the answers)

Your people need to trust that you will act in the best interest of all employees. That doesn’t mean that you need to have all the answers. It is okay to be honest about things you don’t know, but it is not okay to be ignorant about the concerns of your people. This is the time to listen and articulate the challenges your people are facing. Taking the time in 1:1s or during meetings to check-in with everyone on your team will go a long way during a crisis, as will making sure your words and actions speak to their personal struggles. 

Make communication succinct and purpose driven

People are being bombarded with complex health and safety information. Your role is to help simplify communication by emphasizing the most important information. Keep your messages succinct and focused on the purpose behind your actions. Avoid the urge to go into too many details about how you are trying to solve a problem, and instead make it a priority to highlight important goals, how your team can help you achieve them, and how working together to get there will benefit everyone. It’s the difference between an email with long paragraphs full of platitudes like,  “leadership is doing everything we can” and one with bulleted actions that are being taken. 

Prioritize long-term stability

Courageous leadership often means doing something painful in the short-term to ensure security and cooperation for the long-term. Demonstrating courage and self-sacrifice is essential if you want to mobilize action during and after a crisis. Crises are often tests of the fundamental social contracts people, companies and institutions have with each other. The value of social contracts takes a long time to build and determine the lengths to which people will cooperate with each other. While the decisions made now will have a lasting effect on the outcomes of this crisis, they also set a new precedent for how people will treat each other after it is over. 

 

People learn what it means to be a leader during times of crisis. As a leader, you have to hold yourself to a higher standard for the good of others. Demonstrating calm and being present in the face of uncertainty is essential. Fully accept the urgency of the moment and remember the people who rely on you are not in a position to be as generous or considerate as you normally expect. Accept that conflicts will arise, but find purpose in the fact that others look to you as they navigate this difficult time.

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