How to Lead in Times of Crisis
Leaders need to strive to disseminate all essential information promptly when responding to crises.
Employees also require updates regularly, even when visibility is limited. Successful leaders understand their people’s needs and communicate priority changes frequently; in addition, they foster psychological safety by giving employees confidence that they’re being taken care of.
1. Be Prepared
Preparing to lead is more than having a plan in place; it includes developing the skills needed to respond effectively when things go wrong, including handling human dimensions of crisis management. Prep involves pausing to evaluate, anticipate, and anticipate what might come next when faced with uncertainty – and learning from each crisis incident to better yourself as a leader going forward.
Leaders must ensure they take time for self-care both individually and organizationally, because emotional turmoil can distract you from doing the work that needs to be done, leaving little energy or time left over for supporting their people. Establish a process for taking care of oneself such as avoiding toxic people or activities and taking five-minute private breaks focused on breathing exercises, meditation or spiritual practices can also help maintain perspective and reduce stress levels.
Leadership must also be transparent with their people regarding what they know and don’t know, giving employees confidence that leadership will keep them up-to-date and provide updates regularly – this will build trust between employees and leadership, which in turn provides motivation to continue supporting the company through this difficult period. They should inspire hope while being careful to give open-ended hope – any hope with an end date could damage morale.
Finally, leaders must let go of any expectations that top-down responses will bring stability. Even in routine emergencies, command and control models can create chaos when leaders don’t understand the situation well enough to make informed decisions quickly enough. Instead, leaders should engage their employees through shared priorities while giving them freedom to create solutions tailored specifically to meeting those needs.
2. Be Honest
Leaders must always remain transparent during times of crisis. Although it may be tempting to hide problems under the rug, doing so can have dire repercussions for both teams and companies alike. Instead, communicate openly about what you know and don’t know; employees don’t expect you to hide grim facts from them, and will respect leaders who tell the truth.
Inspiration of hope should also be part of your plan, though open-ended promises should be used. Avoid giving specific timeframes of when things will improve as this could actually demoralize employees; encourage your team instead to focus on meeting each challenge head on and work together towards meeting it together.
Finally, be honest about how you’re handling the crisis personally. Employees want to see that their leaders care for them and are human – avoid publicly venting your frustrations as this sends the wrong signal – instead save these conversations for trusted colleagues or professional advisors.
Mauro Guillen is an associate professor at the Wharton School and an internationally acclaimed leadership expert whose research and online courses have attracted over 100,000 participants. He is best known as the author of Nano Tools for Leaders, an easy and fast way to acquire essential leadership tools within 15 minutes – visit nanotoolsforleaders.com for more details.
3. Be Empathetic
Empathy is an invaluable quality for leaders to possess. It serves as a form of emotional intelligence, helping you comprehend how others feel and their needs. Furthermore, empathy allows leaders to prioritize their people by making decisions in their best interest; especially during times of crisis when empathy ensures everyone feels at ease and receives all the necessary information they require to thrive.
Lacking empathy, leaders who lack it often fail to recognize that their employees are suffering during a crisis. Instead, they may conceal or not tell employees the truth of the situation or listen to employees when speaking up, leading to poor decisions that worsen matters further.
Great leaders show compassion to their people during difficult times, reading between the lines to understand how others are feeling. For instance, they understand when an employee becomes frustrated over something trivial that it likely stems from fear or anxiety about something more significant; rather than pushing them away or blaming them, these leaders address the source of these feelings to help people cope in healthier ways.
Leadership during times of crisis is more crucial than ever, and the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted many organizations’ need to strengthen their leadership abilities. McKinsey has an abundance of expertise that can assist leaders effectively respond to pandemic and recovery situations: organizing via a network of teams; displaying deliberate calm and bounded optimism; making decisions amid uncertainty; showing empathy; and communicating effectively. Each article in this series will explore these concepts further as well as provide tips for applying them during times of crisis.
4. Be Visible
Leaders need to remain visible during times of crisis in order to keep their teams informed and engaged. Leaders should communicate new goals frequently while being open to answering challenging employee queries. Furthermore, leaders may consider giving teams direct access to communication channels like internal wikis or chat rooms so they can connect directly.
Finally, leaders should be mindful not to dismiss employee anxiety as trivial or unimportant. Even hardened leaders are affected by this crisis in both personal and professional ways – for instance, Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO made headlines when he decided not to sell firearms and ammo at his stores in response to school shootings; an incredible show of crisis leadership that reminds leaders they lead are more than mere cogs in a machine.
Leaders can increase their visibility by making an effort to interact with and walk among their teams more regularly. For example, managers in supply-chain distribution have taken to volunteering shifts at warehouses with full PPE in order to help employees pack and ship orders – this shows their care about employees’ daily struggles while building trust between themselves and employees.
Effective leaders during times of crisis need to exhibit a combination of characteristics and behaviors that ensure they exhibit effective leadership qualities. McKinsey’s Mauro Guillen has developed five nano tools for leaders: organizing via teams; showing deliberate calm and bounded optimism; making decisions amid uncertainty; showing empathy; and remaining visible – these simple strategies can make a significant difference in effectiveness and resilience during difficult periods.
5. Be Accessible
Crisis situations put enormous pressure on you to act swiftly, often before having an in-depth knowledge of what’s transpiring. Being available and approachable means your team members can communicate their needs or ask any necessary questions.
At the same time, it is crucial that you inform your team when you’re unavailable – for instance when leaving an office temporarily due to safety considerations – it is vital that this be communicated clearly so people understand that you still exist for them and their absence won’t last.
Leaders should also be transparent with their teams about what they know and don’t know so employees can trust that any information shared will be given honestly. While it can be tempting to limit communication to just those necessary for need-to-know situations, doing so only will damage morale and undermine trust between team members and leaders. Instead, leaders must provide frequent updates and promote psychological safety by permitting employees to freely express ideas or express concerns without fear of punishment.
Leaders need the ability to manage uncontrollable circumstances while adapting to unfamiliar ones in order to lead during times of crisis, often falling short with traditional leadership protocols and approaches. By adopting a proactive mindset and taking simple steps, your leaders can step up to meet this challenge head on. If your organization would like its leaders equipped with these essential skills for leading during crises, consider offering our Nano Tools for Leaders courses – they’re fast, effective and easy to learn! Choose from topics like Communication, Leading Through Change & Disruption Listening To Understand Psychological Safety or Psychological Safety! Get going now!