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Leading Your People in Times of Crisis

on March 19, 2020

Some organizations emerge from a crisis stronger and more ready to thrive than they were before the crisis arrived. The big differentiator that separates them from companies that falter is people – how their leaders empathize, engage, motivate, and capitalize on their talents and knowledge in the face of adversity.

The critical first step is making sure people don’t jump on the “freak-out train” of doom, gloom, and complete helplessness. This train’s last stop is Catastrophe City, where we view today’s health crisis and economic plunge as being worse than they are or worse than they’re projected to be. In Catastrophe City, people feel powerless to change what’s happening. But this is rarely true.

So what can organizations do to turn adversity into an advantage during times of unprecedented uncertainty?

  1. Don’t ignore the anxiety people feel. This only magnifies it. It’s important to acknowledge and validate how people feel, as they’re often operating in survival mode – a natural “fight or flight” response. But fight (anger) of flight (escape) reactions keep us from acting on our opportunities. Empathize with how your people think and feel. Bring it out into the open and make them feel safe talking about it. Have managers invite people to write down their feelings in thought bubbles on pieces of paper. Then, as a team, discuss what’s in our control and what’s not. For the things that are within our control, look at them with fresh eyes and outline new ways to approach them in the current environment.
  2. Actively define reality. People are amazingly able to deal with reality even if it has a significant downside. It’s the unknown that is paralyzing. A leader’s job is to bring the facts about “exactly where we are” to their organization and teams. In times of economic trouble, not only can most people handle it, they crave it. Be truthful about job security. If there are no guarantees, tell them. Uncertainty and ambiguity can be more harmful than the bad news itself. That’s why accurate “big picture” news is an important tool. Providing context for actions – the “whys,” – is essential.
  3. Create a new starting line with your people. During times of crisis, people at all levels of an organization can become fixated on what we lose. It could be a vacation, a bonus, equity or 401(k) value, or even a promotion. Now all bets are off. Spending too much time on what people have lost prevents us from creating a new starting line, focusing our energy on the “new normal” and what we can start over with under the new conditions. Letting go of what could have been is a key first step to being focused on success in the new environment.
  4. Use urgency as an alignment ally. Instead of looking at change as a crisis lurking just around the corner, accelerate your efforts to analyze and act on problems instead of wandering around them. Urgency can better frame the challenges, engage people in a deeper understanding of the issues, and equip them with the responses necessary to be successful. Urgency is a powerful unifying force. Use it to your advantage!
  5. Establish new check-in routines. Staying in touch with your people is more important than ever. Setting a new routine of 15–30-minute check-ins every other day may be more important than ever. These brief interactions can be opportunities to share updates with the team, highlight the latest critical information, and identify adjustments that need to be made for business continuation. These check-ins become a powerful social experience to reinforce that we’re not alone in responding to the challenges we face.
  6. Celebrate all victories, large and small. This means even more recognition of the adaptive actions that get positive results. Don’t over-hype the small gains. To use some baseball lingo, it’s the singles and doubles that allow you to emerge stronger and persevere throughout the game.
  7. Scout the possibilities. Deputize your people as “opportunity scouts.” Doing so means tapping into what your people know about the current challenges and getting them involved in imagining a response and a recovery plan that creates value in the current environment. No matter how intensive past productivity efforts have been, people can always see more opportunities when they’re engaged in the essential threats we’re facing. Their ideas for weathering the storm on both the cost and revenue sides of the business are often better than what most leaders could implement on their own.
  8. Communicate the score. More than ever, people are interested knowing the costs, sales, and financial strength as measures of “how we’re doing.” Pay attention to their curiosity and interest and use it to immerse people in the metrics of the business. In most cases, you’ll institute a new set of targets during times of crisis. “How we’re doing” on these new metrics is essential information to share. Leaders need to balance the tension of “what’s real” with “what’s possible.”
  9. Highlight the rays of light. On a recent airing of CNBC’s Mad Money, Dow Inc. CEO Jim Fitterling said, “In the past two weeks, we have seen our demand bounce back in China. I think that tells us we can see the same thing wash through the economy here.” Rays of light exist and should be as much a part of the narrative as any losses we experience.

As leaders, we need to ask ourselves questions. Am I defining reality and creating hope in this unprecedented environment of challenge and change? Am I helping my people become the change agents we need so we can be successful in difficult times? And do they truly know the score so they can actively engage in improving the situation?

On top of all this, the great philosopher Winnie-the-Pooh has a few words worthy of sharing with your people that are more relevant now than ever: “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

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