Leader-Managers in a Crisis

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A crisis could almost be defined as any problem that we don’t have ready answers for that is going to have a significant impact no matter how we respond. It is the uncertainty that causes people’s emotions to flare because they are trying to manage their instinctual need to go into fight or flight or freeze mode to respond to the threat. Simply put, in a crisis, leadership is about advancing the agenda of the organization while guiding people through threatening circumstances. If leaders can help their people panic less, those same people have more mental capacity to help them find solutions! Here are some steps that leaders can take to build trust and calm for themselves and their teams:


1) First, recognize that the ability to acknowledge, respond to, and manage distress is a core function of leadership, that leadership really is never-ending change management, alignment, re-calibration. Accept that you’ll be repeating yourself a lot and changing gears often: commit to doing it tactfully, to doing it truthfully, and with an element of hope, encouragement, and inspiration. Sometimes, organization leaders get to choose the change by setting the direction that their folks will go in. In other times, leaders have to respond to what’s going on around them. We’re in “other times”.


2) Remember that you are still the liverwurst in the sandwich or the middle piece of bread in the Big Mac meaning that you are responding to the demands and needs of the people above and below you. Now is NOT the time to express disagreement with the folks above you to the people below you! Alignment helps to reassure your direct reports, even if they disagree with the decisions being made. As far as the direct reports go, HEAR THEM OUT! Give them time and space to be afraid or vent. It’s perfectly natural for people to have feelings; don’t take the display of those feelings, if seemingly angry, to heart.


3) Start a journal or running list of all the decisions you have had to make quickly that you believe will have loose ends that will need to be addressed later. Take special note of all the protocol breaches and explanations for them. Record-keeping matters because this situation will blow over. You must continue to manage liability. Responsiveness doesn’t justify carelessness and written record-keeping saves you the stress of trying to remember everything. Sidenote: video and voice notes work for recording keeping, too! Finally, this information will help debrief with your key players at each step as you muddle your way through. It will also be important when you evaluate this experience to improve your organization and team’s responses in the future.  


4) See every discretionary decision involving your employees as “culture defining”. This is where your cultural credit history meets immediate needs. Yes, effective responsiveness or financial prudence/survival is critical, but how you handle and communicate tough calls will impact what normal is for your team when things settle down. How you decide what cuts and reductions must be made tells people what matters. Thus, it’s to your benefit to be transparent and to share what your “managing through austerity” substitutes will be as a way of saying, we have to pivot AND stay true to our values.


5) Recognize that providing sound information and structure is comforting.

  1. Create information portals where employees can get information about the overall direction of your organization and team. This is a great opportunity for the most senior leaders to make it clear that it understands the landscape and is relate-able. For example, a new page on your website with daily updates, even if the update is telling them to hold steady. Likewise, create mechanisms for them to chat with one another, to ask questions, or to make suggestions.
  2. Give employees information that is as specific as possible about their particular jobs and team from the managers, supervisors, and leaders they interact with most because they have more rapport with that level of leadership.
  3. Create structure for them. For example, schedule video or conference calls so that they stay connected, whether they are working remotely or on-site. If they are laid-off off, give them the option to stay connected (make sure it’s very clear that it’s optional). Structure is reassurance because it helps them understand what to expect.


6) Start NOW thinking of a goal that you can set for your team as things get back to normal. The goal should be relatively simple and one that requires everybody to do his or her part. Essentially, the team needs a win and a jump start; thus, the objective of an immediate goal is to help them begin reestablishing relationships and reiterating that you all have a uniformed mission as a team.

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