We often learn the most about leadership during times of crisis. As people around the world grapple with the ambiguity and potential impacts of a virus that has spread to more than 100 countries, sickened more than 18.6 million people, and caused over 701,000 deaths to date, leaders are being asked to step up to the plate. In an effort to support our clients through these difficult times, The Leadership Development Group canvassed leadership experts across the globe on three critical areas of focus for leaders navigating these challenging waters.
1. Decompression and practicality
When it comes to COVID-19 there are still many unknowns for individuals questioning the impact it will have on them, their families and their communities. While skeptics draw comparisons between the scale of seasonal influenza epidemics, which result in 3-5 million global cases of severe illness a year, and COVID-19, a key differentiator is that we understand seasonal flu very well. The unknowns associated with COVID-19 spawn panic and anxiety, which have been demonstrated to negatively impact the ability to long-term plan, calculate the consequences of risk and reward, regulate emotions, problem-solve and make quality decisions.
What can you do to demonstrate decompression and practicality?
Balance the unknowns with practicality and proactiveness. As leaders, we make decisions based on what we know, and adapt and adjust as needed when new information comes in. Leaders can remain focused on “the givens” to inform what can be done to best prepare. Relieving the burden of having to predict the unknowable can help leaders execute sound decision-making in the here and now.
Practice “mindful leadership” by being fully present for others. Through mindful leadership, leaders can support employees that may be experiencing panic or anxiety and help guide them toward focus, clarity, creative problem solving and action.
Carve out “heads up” time for strategic thinking. Provide yourself and employees dedicated time to dive deeper on how to approach a challenge, reach a point of comfortable preparedness and complete associated tasks. This creates the space to decompress and reason through the matter at hand.
2. Clear communication and decisive action
Crises are time-sensitive events that require quick decisions and actions to reduce and contain the potential for harm. In the absence of clear and consistent information about what actions will be taken at the government or enterprise level, people are left to guess the probability of needing to manage everything themselves. Currently the media is flooded with conflicting messages about the risk coronavirus poses and how seriously people should prepare for it, causing many to resort to the extreme under the assumption that special danger must require special precautions.
What can you do to demonstrate clear communication and decisive action?
Aim for quick and meaningful action. Intellectual preparedness alone is not enough. Organizational leaders should communicate how critical decisions will be made and operationalized in a time-sensitive matter. Controversial and high-profile challenges such as COVID-19 typically attract review by corporate affairs, legal, risk management and a host of other functions. If you find your organization bogged down by bureaucracy, ensure you have a small, trusted team with appropriate decision-making authority and remind individuals that refraining from or delaying action is a form of response with implications of its own.
To reduce rumors, be honest. Communication should be frequent, honest and not exaggeratedly reassuring. It is important to communicate both what is known as well as what is unknown, uncertain or hypothesized. Frequent, honest communication can reduce organizational rumors and needless anxiety and fear.
Credibility begets believability. During a crisis it is imperative to communicate in a way that persuades people to take harm-reducing actions; much of this is driven by whether the message received is determined to be credible. Credibility is a function of both trustworthiness and expertise. In the face of so much conflicting information it is important for leaders to articulate intentions, relevant expertise and the quality of any sources used when communicating about COVID-19.
3. Empathy and community
Coronavirus and the incurring media hype seem to have engendered a sort of survivalist psychology across the public, where rational people participate in behaviors such as panic buying of toilet paper and looting of N95 masks. This psychological shift has worrying implications on two fronts. First, hoarding of resources can result in less access for those in greatest need such as the elderly, immunocompromised and frontline healthcare workers. Second, during times of crisis, racial stereotyping and distrust of others can become default behavior as people look for somewhere to place blame.
What can you do to demonstrate empathy and community?
Double down on your common purpose. A sense of shared purpose is a powerful uniting force during a time that could easily spiral into divisiveness. Explicitly stating your company’s purpose and committing to having the organization revolve around that purpose has been demonstrated to increase employee engagement and organizational commitment during difficult times.
Intentionally foster a sense of inclusivity. Leaders can remain mindful of personal and organizational blind spots while staying vigilant of how the psychology of COVID-19 may impact the environment of the organization or community. In-the-moment interventions are important to stop the spread of xenophobic misinformation.
Encourage communities to support those most at risk. Encourage employees and community members to maintain a sense of rationality and inclusive kindness and create plans to monitor the well-being of those most at risk. In the face of wide-spread anxiety it’s important to take a detailed census of those most vulnerable and consider putting systems in place to check in on them and ensure they have access to necessary resources such as extra groceries.
Today’s leaders face a unique and never-before-seen set of challenges as the steward of their organizations and communities through these challenging times. As organizational leaders, you have the ability to turn crisis into shared purpose that will strengthen your organization and community for the long-term.