Leading in times of Crisis by Edwina Pike

Leaders are judged by their action in times of crisis.

How we, as leaders, respond in times of crisis defines our leadership. As the world around us redefines how we work our leadership needs to adapt with it.

This is the time to use our empathy, our emotional intelligence and our communications as leaders to provide an environment where our teams can thrive in difficult circumstances.

Focus your efforts on leading smarter, not harder. Think of this article as a crash course in leadership.

How humans respond to crisis

As leaders we are human first, leaders second.

Humans don’t like change, we don’t like surprises. We are biased towards the status quo. Routines and predictability give us a sense of control and safety. In our busy worlds we are often cognitively overloaded with little time to think or plan. We feel stressed by this.

Humans who are stressed are more likely to worry, as are those who trust informal information. Informal information includes scare stories and rumours. At times of crisis the impact of worry becomes more extreme.

We do what we can to seek security, safety and predictability. We want to feel in control and are more likely to make decisions which give us that sense of control now, rather than being comfortable in the ambiguity.

For many of us our workspace is our place of safety away from the pressures and stresses that exist in our family lives.

In the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, sales of toilet roll, pasta and tinned vegetables went through the roof, leading to shortages as humans took simple measures to feel in control of their environment and safe, just in case.

When we feel threatened our bodies flood with chemicals to help us fight or flight raising a defensive wall. In times of crisis our defensive wall is more likely to be raised and once raised we are biased to treat things as threats rather than opportunities. We become closed rather than open.

If we are uncertain, we can be paralysed whilst we wait for clear direction, rather than head in the wrong direction.

What motivates our teams in a crisis?

At ‘The Change Wizard’ we believe that safety sits at the heart of organisational motivation. If our teams feel safe, they are more likely feel empowered, take risks and bring their best self to work. Feeling safe reduces our worry and stress.The leader-follower dynamic comes into play; I work to help my leader be successful, in return they keep me safe.

Safety is our ability to keep ourselves, our family and our property safe. For most of us this comes from our employment. Times of crisis hits safety hard, for us as leaders and for our teams.

As leaders providing a safe and predictable environment helps our teams to thrive. Giving a sense of predictability and control will help stabilise your team so that they can perform at their best during tough times.

The six things that Leaders do

We believe there are Six Things that leaders do which informs how our teams respond to us. How we respond in a crisis is one of the six.

These are the moments when you have to act quickly, you don’t have time to think about what is right. What we do is informed by what comes naturally, from our own beliefs, or what we have been trained to do.

This is where we show up as the leader we are. There are no second chances to make the right first impression.

Once the initial moment of crisis realisation is over, it is time to reflect on how the crisis will change your leadership in the interim, or permanently.

  • How does the crisis change what you measure? You may have less visibility of your team if they are displaced, how will they know how to please you?

  • How will your team see the behaviours you are role modelling? Time for a quick sanity check of your own emotions and behaviours and how are they impacting your team. If you withdraw and become distant, how will your team rationalise this. If you are visibly struggling, what will the impact be on your team? Take the lead on creating opportunities to be visible to your team. Create methods of social interaction and team building. If you are confident, your team will be confident.

  • How will you rewards or apply consequences? If your team are working remotely and your normal ways of showing positive feedback are not available to you, how will you adapt? Without feedback your team won’t know if what they are doing is pleasing you and are more likely to paralyse in uncertainty. In the vacuum you need to more explicitly give and receive feedback from your team.

Take a few minutes to review our Six Things Tool and reflect on what and how you need to do things differently now and in the future.

Trust in times of crisis

Trust matters even more in times of crisis, it is an enabler to feeling safe. Trust is built over time yet lost in an instant. Consistency and delivering on what you say you will do are important parts of trust.

What commitments can you make, demonstrate evidence of and deliver against. Trust is formed from doing what you say you are going to do.Trust works both ways. Do you trust your employees, especially if they are working virtually? This can often be a big shift in how we think and how we work as leaders. We no longer have the data points we have when the team is working in close confines to us.

To build trust with your team, understand each other’s judgement and how you both think. Start with testing judgement.

Before you leap into making a decision, ask your team members what they would decide or do and why. Make this a habit, it might surprise you.

It is easy to make a decision, as leaders it makes us feel important, but holding off and asking first means that you can see their thinking.

If their judgement is good you can trust that they will make the right call when they need to. If judgement is not good, work on how to build the right judgement, share your perspective.

Resilience and Renewal in times of crisis

As leaders we are humans first, leaders second. Recognise this and that you need to put your own safety mask on before you can effectively lead others.

The most important thing for an organisation and team in crisis is a stable and predictable leader who can provide a sense of safety to their team. Without this your team will not perform.

In times of crisis you may not have the choice to look after yourself the way that you would like to.

Be selfish. Find ways to build in your resilience and renewal. Small steps. Know your minimums. Go for a walk. Take a break. Sleep well. To be the best for your team, your family, your friends you need to be the best of you.

The most powerful tonic to build resilience is the practice of positive thinking. What can you and your team be grateful for. What small successes can you celebrate. When you feel a negative thoughts coming into your mind, catch them and pivot them to positive thought.

Remember, it takes three positive thoughts to overcome the damage of one negative thought.

Think about opportunities instead of challenges or problems. As one door closes another opens, you just need to find it. If you find that your team are focusing on the negative, as the leader it is time to change the rhetoric.

Communicating in times of crisis

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Communication is a leaders most effective tactic. In times of uncertainty communicate frequently and openly, more than you feel is necessary or comfortable. Be consistent, and as open and transparent as you can be.

Times of change can be times of opportunity, a chance to connect to your team in a different and deeper way to how you have connected before.

In crisis our responses are often emotional. Evidence, fact based information is best placed to dispel myths and informal information. Reducing the levels of worry in the early stages helps in the long term.

If information relating to the crisis is incomplete, find ways to help your team navigate what is known and recognise what isn’t.

Communication is a two-way street. Listen hard to your team, ask questions to get a sense of how they are feeling and what else is impacting their world. If you are working in a virtual world you are missing the data points that you would normally have; a team member who is carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders or one who is distracted by their worries. Adapt to what you learn before you launch in with your tasks.

1:1 communications are most impactful and in times of crisis are particularly important, they are more authentic and give you the chance to understand your team better. Factor these in.

In times of crisis a vacuum is filled with the worst possible invention.

If you leave a vacuum in communication your team will think the worst. If you are worried, your team will be worried too. Be aware of your own emotions and make a choice of how and what you want to communicate for the best outcomes in your team.

Know that things you write down are easily misinterpreted when trust and safety are under threat.

 

Use technology to speak to your team face to face if you cannot physically be together, Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams offer great solutions. You can see your team’s facial expressions and more importantly they can read yours. It is a more powerful way to demonstrate your leadership.

Embrace collaboration tools like QUIP, Slack or Microsoft Teams. As the leader, adopt and insist on their usage and others will follow.

The more data points you can collect from your team the better you can assess the situation and whether you need to intervene or be proud.

Leading in a virtual world

Times of crisis can leave us in the situation that we are leading in a virtual world. Leading virtually is a great test of our leadership as many of the traditional methods we have used in the past won’t work as well. We need to learn new tricks.

To effectively lead in a virtual world the first step is to establish trust. Without trust your sentiment towards your team will be damaged and you risk feeling the need to oversee or micromanage.

  • Establish Trust: Make sure you have the data points that you need and that your team can clearly see what is important to you. Find new ways to communicate. Reflect on what you need to know and do to create a trusted relationship, recognise that you may have to have some tough conversations.

  • Empower your team. To get the best out of your team in a virtual world they need to feel empowered and that you have got their back. If your team come to you for every decision this is less practical in a virtual world. Ask questions and build their judgement, so that they are empowered to act. Ask yourself: What can I do to empower my team more, how will that change how I need to lead?

  • Set clear boundaries. Without boundaries your team will stick close to you and become dependent on you; to make decisions for them, to set the tasks or to give clear signs of how to please you. This may work when you are co-located but falls apart when you are distant. Be explicit on what good looks like, what outcomes you expect and the boundary lines not to be crossed.

  • Be consistent and transparent. The more predictable you are the more likely your team will know how to please you and will trust you. This takes more effort on your part, but it is worth it. Be available, be visible.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. More than you did before. Use different methods and check that the message has got through. Regularly check what your team members are prioritising, make it natural rather than an interrogation which may come over as lack of trust.

When the world is crazy outside of work, make the working environment a safe and predictable space to get the most out of your team.

What if …

Forewarned is forearmed. It gives you the chance to respond quickly and in a way that fits your leadership style. Think through your fallback plans, they help you mentally prepare.

Expect a difficult conversation with one of your team, whether they have a family member who is ill or other crisis in their lives. Demonstrate empathy and know the support networks that are available to them and you. Put yourself in their shoes, what do they need from you as their leader?

What if the crisis takes you or a critical team member out of play? What are the minimums that need to be in place?

Fallback plans reassure your brain that you have a plan which makes you feel more confident. If you feel more confident your team will feel more confident too.

Summary

Leaders are judged by their action in times of crisis. Be the leader you want to be.

Be consistent, create a safe and predictable environment for your team to thrive. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

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Edwina Pike has spent over two decades successfully designing, leading and implementing complex transformations in a FTSE10 organisation. Her passions for understanding why humans change, how to deliver value through behaviour change and the impact of leadership, have led to insights which are useful to us all. Now sought after as a leadership coach and transformation adviser Edwina can be found at her advisory business Pike Squared or writing for her coaching business The Change Wizard.