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Leadership During a Crisis Means More Than Keeping the Lights On

8 minute read
Melissa Henley avatar
How do you maintain confidence in a time of ambiguity?

The fast-changing nature of the COVID-19 crisis has created extraordinary challenges for leaders. What worked at the start, when we were all struggling to make it through the day, may not be serving you now as we’ve all settled somewhat into “the new normal.”

While we — and our teams — have developed a routine, circumstances are still changing daily. At this point, it's easy to understand why many leaders have shied away from decisive action and open communication. Now as many organizations plan for the future, and whether to return to the office (and how), business leaders are faced with yet another challenge: how they will shape the future of work for their employees.

We’re all working in circumstances many of us couldn’t have imagined months ago. Yet as leaders, we have to guide our teams. While we may have initially been focused on technology — making sure the VPN is stable, providing video conferencing capabilities, provisioning laptops, implementing process automation to keep services running smoothly — there’s more to leading through a crisis, especially one with no end in sight, than simply keeping the lights on. Acting decisively, communicating honestly and being willing to adapt to changing circumstances are all crucial components of leadership in any crisis, but especially this one.

For your team, how do you maintain confidence in a time of ambiguity? When nothing is certain, how do you keep them certain in your leadership and direction? When the crisis has no defined end point, and seems like it might drag on forever, how do you keep employees focused and engaged? Transparent leadership is one answer. And that requires three things: consistent communication, empathy and clear messaging.

Communicate Clearly, Consistently and Transparently

People fear what they don’t know, and the COVID-19 crisis seems like a never-ending journey into the unknown. What’s going to happen? Is my job safe? When we return to the office, will I be safe?

While you can’t, and shouldn’t, predict the future, you can communicate regularly to assuage employees’ fears.

Be honest and transparent. If people fear what they don’t know, how do you address a situation where you don’t know what the outcome will be? Be honest about what you do know and what it means for people. But this doesn’t mean you should stick to cold directives. When people are frightened, they need reassurance. As much as you can, provide your employees with a vision of the future that they can work toward. Consider sending out a survey to get feedback from employees on their comfort level with returning to the office before you announce return-to-work plans. Give your team confidence that the organization is planning for the future, and their input won’t be ignored.

State what you know (and what you don’t). Many leaders think they should hold onto information until it’s approved, crafted and ready to release. That strategy doesn’t work when events are unfolding and new information is coming to light. Don’t forget that your staff is monitoring the news, too. If they see that stay-at-home orders are repealed and that businesses are reopening, but you don’t address it for a week because of internal deliberations, it will contribute to confusion. Do your part to work with your executives and crisis management team to communicate as clearly and rapidly as you can.

Be iterative. Like all crises, COVID-19 is changing by the day. Don’t be afraid to openly acknowledge changes, whether they are due to changes in state orders or business circumstances. Invite employees to share their thoughts and feelings about working from home or potentially returning to the office, and what you can do as an organization to make them feel safe. It’s better to quickly and openly address the changes going on than to leave your team in confusion.

Don’t forget to acknowledge the work of your team. Congratulate them for going above and beyond to serve your customers and keep things moving. Research shows that grateful people are more resilient and are better equipped to manage stress. And as a bonus, recognizing the great work of your team is likely to make you feel more positive, too.

Related Article: Bad Company Culture? Blame Senior Leadership

Learning Opportunities

Understand the Importance of Empathy

The US Army, in its Army Field Manual on Leader Development, insists that empathy is essential for competent leadership. Empathy isn’t about making people happy or being nice. It’s understanding the people you work with to better develop and communicate policies and procedures. Even if you know a policy might not make people happy, with empathy, you’ll understand why it will upset people and the ways to proactively address that.

To cultivate empathy, try:

  • Putting yourself in another’s shoes. When considering return to work policies, think about others’ perspectives. How will it affect a single parent when schools, camps and daycares are closed? What about employees with chronic health conditions? The same perspective will help you better appreciate the stresses your team members are feeling right now, regardless of if they are dealing with a partner who’s been laid off, trying to balance full-time care of a toddler with full-time work, or parenting teenagers upset about missing senior year activities. You may not be a parent of young children (or even a parent at all), but with empathy, you can better understand the stresses your team members are feeling.
  • Truly listening. Laserfiche founder Nien-Ling Wacker always used to tell me that we have two ears and one mouth because we should listen twice as much as we talk. There’s truth in that, because you’ll always gain more from listening than speaking. When you’re talking to team members, you want to truly listen. Focus on the video call, stop checking your emails, and pay attention so you can see what’s really going on. Is someone saying “I’m fine” but looking away? Has their appearance or attitude changed? Pay attention to the emotion behind the words to hear what they are trying to tell you.
  • Take a personal interest. While we are likely to want to focus on work right now, recognize that you need to take an interest in the lives of the people who work for you. Ask questions about their families, their lives, their struggles — and truly listen to the answers. Taking a personal interest is the strongest way to build trust and encourage others to share valuable feedback with you, whether it’s on organizational policies, fears about returning to the office or simmering issues you weren’t aware of.

Empathy is a muscle that becomes stronger with use. Start exercising it.

Related Article: How Leaders Can Foster Good Mental Health for Those Working From Home

Share Purpose with a Clear Message

Clarity of message is crucial. If you don’t have a clear, compelling message when communicating with your employees about the future, you’re risking confusion. You can’t afford to risk confusion during such a pivotal time.

Your entire team should understand what is happening, where the organization is going and why. Are you launching a new campaign or strategy to go on the offense and take advantage of a shift in your sector? Are you staying the course? To make sure employees understand your strategic direction, try these strategies for message clarity.

  • Keep everyone on message. Everyone in your organization: the executive team, marketing, social media, internal communications, investor relations, sales should be on message. This means your message needs to be short, distinctive and clear so it’s easily remembered and communicated. Remember to focus on one message that your entire organization can rally around, rather than diluting the message with multiple strategies or promotions.
  • Be consistent. Once you have a clear direction, make sure your entire leadership team — from the C-suite to middle management — is on board and understands. That way, everyone will be on the same page.
  • Connect on a human level. Remember that you are talking to real people, not just “employees.” Speak to them on a personal level. Beyond making money, why is this important? What difference will it make to the lives of your customers? Help them understand the part they play in changing lives and helping customers adjust to an uncertain future.

When defining a “new normal,” contradictory, unclear messaging can cost you money when employees don’t understand where they should be focusing and why. As a leader, it’s your job to make sure everyone is clear on the strategic direction and understands the part they play in its ultimate success.

Pandemics are unlike any challenges we face as leaders, and the COVID-19 crisis is testing us in ways many of us have never experienced. It’s natural to want to consolidate control to mitigate risk. Instead, give your team the latitude to innovate while you put your employees first. If you strive to put your employees’ physical and mental health and safety first — and let them know that you’re doing so — you may be surprised at how your employees step up to ensure that metrics are met, customers are served and your company survives.

About the author

Melissa Henley

Melissa Henley is Senior Director of Customer Experience at KeyShot, the global leader of product design rendering software. Customers are at the heart of all Melissa does, and her passion is around connecting people to content that can have a genuine positive impact on their lives.

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