How to Be a Leader in a Crisis

The importance of leadership in moments of crisis

Crises like the corona virus create a staggering amount of uncertainty that even the most seasoned leaders may not know how to navigate. All factors of the crisis are unlike any that leaders have seen in recent history, leaving no source of experience to draw lessons from. Employees are looking to their leaders for guidance and comfort at a time where there is no playbook on how to manage through. Furthermore, organizations are forced to change how employees work dramatically very quickly, leaving some individuals vulnerable to exclusion. With that, leaders should adopt some of the behaviours to help them respond to the unknown times while also ensuring that biases do not creep into established work cultures.

Leadership behaviours for a crisis

Be empathetic – leaders need to be empathetic in their responses to a crisis. Recognizing that crisis trigger self-centric needs, such as how will my job be impacted, or is my family going to be safe, is important as it will allow leaders to craft an appropriate response. Such worries will leave employees emotionally drained, thus recognizing the impact can help ensure that responses bring needed comfort to employees.

Communicate often – during a crisis, leaders need to communicate frequently with staff. The changing landscape will mean a lot of questions and concerns; having a communication plan that is frequent and predictable allows for key updates to be disseminated. Have a set time every other day or week where employees can expect to get information; even if there is minimal to no updates, even a quick check-in can do wonders for employee morale.

Be calm and transparent – leaders need to be calm and transparent regardless if all the answers are available or not. It is OK not to have all the answers and being honest about it will help maintain the trust between leadership and employees. This trust is key in realigning all teams to focus on working through the crisis together.

Empower individuals to be decision makers – rapid problem solving is needed during a crisis and empowering the right individuals to do this will ensure that dire decisions are actioned on quickly. New information and surprises will be arriving frequently; organizations will need the ability to tackle them quickly and without all the information. This will be imperative for keeping the company moving.

Above all else, be optimistic but also realistic – along with transparency, leaders should be optimistic about the situation. The primary goal is to bring comfort and calm to the team and being optimistic is a key piece in letting employees know that the business will get through this together. Being realistic, though, is also important as too much confidence with a worsening outcome can evaporate trust with employees.

Inclusiveness during crisis

High pressures times will force leaders to respond quick, and with that sometimes biases creep in. This, and given that the new work norm calls for new tools such as web conferences, it is more important than ever for leaders to keep inclusivity top of mind. Diversity sparks more innovative solutions, which is desperately needed to navigate through a crisis. Here are some tips for keeping heuristics and biases in check:

Check in with every employee – when everyone is in the office, it’s easy to shoot a quick Hi to a team member passing by the hallway or strike up a conversation in the lunchroom. Remote work offers no opportunity for casual encounters; this and can leave people feeling isolated and even invisible. Schedule time with each team member to check in on how they are doing. Chat through the shift in work and take note of any struggles and or barriers they are facing with working from home.

Ensure everyone access to the technology and environment for working from home – beyond providing laptops, monitors, and other equipment to staff, make sure to check that everyone is has access to the necessary infrastructure and space to work from home. Everyone’s home situation may be different and they may not have the environment to work from home productively, e.g. employees may have limited access to internet due to cost or they may not have a  quiet space to work if they share their living space. Work with employees to come up with a plan if they are unable to work safely and comfortably from home.

Ensure that virtual gatherings are equitable for all – with the warp speed adoption of video conferencing tools like Zoom for facilitating meetings, there are individuals who are adjusting at different paces and may be being excluded in different ways. For example, an employee who may be hard of hearing may find video lagging audio even more difficult to understand. To ensure all meetings are equitable, turn on closed captioning and send key information before and after meetings. Also take into consideration how a video setting may impact participation – collecting input in advance will ensure that everyone, regardless of their internet speed and or other barriers are able to participate.

Key takeaways

  • Given the uncertainty and evolving state of a crisis, leaders should adopt behaviours rather than a playbook for navigating through a crisis
  • Beware of the biases that will creep in as a result of the speed needed for responding to a crisis
  • Take extra steps to ensure that every employee has equitable access to work from home
  • Above all, be empathetic, compassionate, and optimistic
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