A crisis wears many masks and facing one is inevitable -- it's only a matter of when. Currently, the entire world is grappling with a full-blown pandemic, COVID-19, which has forced businesses out of their normalcy bubble. Its sudden emergence blindsided the leaders and key decision-makers, pushing many to adopt a remote-working model to keep their assets viable, and in many cases, furlough workers and even close their doors.
Calamities like epidemics, pandemics and natural disasters aren’t new. These ‘black swan’ events are where leaders take the spotlight. Their ability to successfully shepherd their workforce through the storm can transform organizations across all levels. At the same time, consistently making wrong decisions while handling crises can result in friction, panic, and unamendable scars in the company's reputation, as well as your own.
The good news is all crises must come to an end. With that in mind, here are 4 time-tested principles that you, as a leader, can use to confidently navigate your distressed workforce through these difficult times.
Keep yourself available
In times of crisis, it can be tempting to hunker down and hide away until the dust settles. However, most ignored problems don’t age like fine wine, especially a fast-developing pandemic like COVID-19. In fact, this is exactly the time when leaders should make an extra effort to remain visible, available and transparent -- even if all they have is bad news. Trying to bury bad news today can cause a negative consequence outbreak. Take the current pandemic: when the news of the Coronavirus first started making the headlines in December, the Chinese government tried their best to suppress it. Other countries then lost precious time they could have used to curb the spread of an epidemic and stop its progression into a pandemic.
Successful leaders understand that being honest and delivering bad news may be uncomfortable in the moment but brings positive dividends in the long-term. By explicitly recognizing the current situation, you can then focus on developing solutions. Plus, being consistently transparent about what you know and don’t know shows that you are actively following the situation’s progress and updating your responses, which is more reassuring than blatantly ignoring the presence of a crisis altogether.
Asking for help isn’t a weakness
A great leader isn’t an invincible force who can single-handedly carry the problems of the entire organization on his or her own shoulders. If you try to do it all, you will struggle, suffer and fail -- and you won’t get any brownie points for failure during a pandemic. The process of overcoming crises together as a team can inspire solidarity among your workforce, and enhanced collaboration can result in increased productivity and innovative ideas, in order to overcome challenges.
A crisis is not a time for perfectionism or pride. Your subordinates may have expertise or a unique perspective that you don’t possess. As the leader, it's up to you to harness that knowledge or skill -- clearly communicate what needs to be done and delegate responsibilities among key members of your team or organization. Then, provide them with the resources they’ll need to successfully complete those tasks.
In addition, if you ask your team to make short-term sacrifices to get you all over the present obstacle, such as pay cuts - lead by example. Step up and make that sacrifice yourself and others won’t question if you truly ‘walk the walk’. And, you’ll have illustrated that you’re all in this together.
Stay organized and keep calm
A crisis brings unprecedented challenges that you have never faced before. It is very easy to get trapped in a tangled web of overwhelm and intimidation, woven with the ropes of new responsibilities. But losing time succumbing to stress and panic causes immense setbacks. As a leader, it is critical to stay calm and focused, so that your team knows that the situation is being handled in the best way possible. If your team picks up on signals that the challenges are starting to get to you, it can cause a butterfly effect where your panic trickles down to your workforce, resulting in a major systemic disaster.
As a leader, you should stay organized and up to date with current information so that you are always on the same page with the ever-unfolding crisis. That being said, don’t just consume information - reflect on it. This means taking a break from crisis management meetings and actively looking at the current state of things from different angles, pausing and assessing the situation before presenting and co-ordinating a solution that corresponds with what’s happening now and what you anticipate happening.
Leaders can use the concepts of updating and doubting while reflecting and assessing the crisis and its consequences. Updating helps leaders revive their understanding of the crisis based on the current information at hand. Doubting, on the other hand, encourages leaders to look at different solutions being implemented and assess whether they need to be modified or eliminated for better results. Once you decide on an action plan, go forward with utmost confidence. This will boost the morale of everyone in your team.
Validate people’s tragedy with empathy
As crisis tears through humanity’s landscape, it causes terror on both a micro and macroscopic level. Everyone is affected on a varied scale. The current global pandemic has already claimed the lives of close to 65,000 people. It’s possible that some of the victims of COVID-19 are the near and dear ones of people in your team. On top of that, in the US alone, over 10 million people have lost their jobs. In a crisis-stricken climate where the most abundant commodities are tragedy and uncertainty, it is important as a leader to bestow empathy upon people who make up your organization.
Depending on the crisis, the worries of your employees will be different. COVID-19 has people stressed about being able to make ends meet, losing their jobs, and holding onto their homes. And this is as well as being afraid of getting sick, as well as being concerned about their kids, parents or significant other falling ill - as well as whether they’d actually be able to afford their medical bills. Or any bills for that matter: since there’s no paycheck coming in. As a leader, it is your responsibility to address all the elephants in the room-- both the professional and personal challenges-- your employees may be facing. Also, take the necessary actions to mitigate those challenges to the best extent possible.
This too shall pass
Remember that calamities reveal the best leaders-- and the best in leaders. It produces, as the writer David Foster Wallace eloquently put it, ‘real leaders’-- a group of people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” As a leader, it’s important now more than ever to be attentive and resilient because there is a long road of uncertainty ahead of you. But this too shall pass, and the lessons you learn from surviving this will prepare you for the next great crisis.