The coronavirus outbreak has placed major adjustments on executives of companies and beyond. The humanitarian toll COVID-19 takes fearing employees and other stakeholders. The sheer scale of the epidemic and its unpredictability make it difficult for leaders to respond. Indeed, the epidemic has the characteristics of a crisis on a “landscape-scale”: an unexpected event or a sequence of events of enormous magnitude and overwhelming speed, which results in a high degree of uncertainty, which gives rise to disorientation, feeling of loss of control and strong emotional disturbance.
Once leaders prepare for a crisis as such, they can begin to craft a response. But they cannot react as they would in an ordinary emergency, following the plans that had been drawn up in advance. During a crisis, which is governed by ignorance and uncertainty, significant responses are primarily improvised. They can cover a wide range of actions: not only temporary relocations (for example, setting up a home working policy) but also adjustments to on-going practical activities (such as adopting new tools to foster collaboration), which may be beneficial to maintain even after the crisis.
What leaders should prepare during a crisis is not a predefined response plan. Still, behaviors and mindsets prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look to the future.
Getting organized to respond to crises: The network of teams
During a crisis, leaders must give up the belief that a top-down response will generate stability. In routine emergencies, the typical business can rely on its command and control structure to properly manage operations by executing a script response. But in crises of uncertainty, leaders face unfamiliar and little-known problems. A small group of executives at the highest level of an organization cannot gather information or make quick decisions to respond effectively. Leaders can better engage their organizations by setting clear priorities for response and allowing others to discover and implement solutions that address those priorities.
Leaders can organize a network of teams to promote rapid problem resolution and execution in chaotic and high-stress conditions. While team networking is a widely known concept, it should be emphasized as relatively few companies have experience implementing one. A team network comprises a highly flexible collection of groups, united by a common purpose, and working together in the same way as the individuals in a single team.
Regardless of their functional scope, effective team networks exhibit different qualities. They are multidisciplinary: experience shows that crises entail a certain degree of complexity, making it necessary to involve experts from other sectors. They are designed to act. It is not enough to ask for expert ideas; experts have to gather information, design solutions, put them into practice, and refine them along the way. And they’re adaptable, rearranging, expanding, or contracting as teams learn more about the crisis and as circumstances change.
Leaders must promote collaboration and transparency within the team network. They do this, among other things, by spreading authority and sharing information: in other words, to demonstrate how the teams themselves should operate. In crises, a leader’s instinct may be to consolidate decision-making authority and audit information, and provide them on a strictly need-to-know basis. By doing the opposite, teams are encouraged to do the same.
Another critical part of the leader’s role, especially in the emotional and tense environment that characterizes a crisis, is to promote psychological security to openly discuss ideas, questions, and concerns without fear of repercussions. This allows the network of teams to understand and address the situation through a healthy debate.
Make decisions with uncertainty: pause to assess and anticipate, then take action.
Waiting for a full set of facts to come to light before deciding what to do is another everyday mistake leaders make during crises. Since a problem has so many unknowns and surprises, the facts may not become apparent within the necessary decision-making. But leaders shouldn’t just rely on their intuition. Leaders can better deal with uncertainty and the feeling of jamais vu (the opposite of déjà vu) by continually gathering information as the crisis unfolds and observing how their responses work.
Crisis communication from leaders often hits, and it can help leaders as they assess and anticipate. One of these, called updating, involves reviewing ideas based on new information gathered by teams and developing knowledge. The second, doubt, helps leaders critically consider current and potential actions and decide whether they should be changed, adapted, or rejected. Updating and doubting helps leaders meditate their dueling impulses to come up with solutions based on what they’ve done before and come up with new solutions without drawing on the past lessons. Instead, leaders release their experiences while accepting new insights as leaders put their experiences to good use while embracing new ideas as they need to act with determination. Visible determination not only strengthens the organization’s confidence in the leadership; it work of teams to support the search for solutions to the challenges the organization must face.
Show empathy: Treat human tragedy as a priority.
In a landscape-scale crisis, people’s minds first turn to their survival and other basic needs. Will I be sick or hurt? Will my family? What happens then? Who takes care of us? Leaders shouldn’t hire communications or legal staff to answer these questions. A crisis is of utmost importance for leaders to uphold an essential aspect of their role: to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
To do this, leaders must recognize the personal and professional challenges that employees and their loved ones face during a crisis. In mid-March 2020, COVID-19 had struck the tragedy of countless people, causing thousands of lives. More than 100,000 cases have been confirmed; many others had been screened. The pandemic has also triggered powerful second-order effects. School closures in many jurisdictions place a strain on working parents. Since every crisis affects people in a certain way, leaders must pay careful attention to how people struggle and take appropriate measures to support them.
Finally, it is crucial that leaders empathize and open to others’ empathy, and remain attentive to their well-being. As stress, fatigue, and uncertainty increase during a crisis, leaders may find that their ability to process information, stay sober, and use common sense diminishes. They are more likely to counteract functional decline if they encourage their colleagues to voice their concerns and heed the warnings given to them. By investing time in their well-being, leaders can maintain their effectiveness for the weeks and months that a crisis can bring.
Communicate effectively: ensure transparency and ensure regular updates
Crisis communication from executives often goes in the wrong direction. Time and again, we leaders adopt an overconfident and optimistic tone at the onset of a crisis – and arouse the suspicion of stakeholders about leaders know and how they are dealing with the problem. Authority figures also tend to put announcements on hold for long periods while waiting for more facts to emerge, and decisions are made.