In times of crisis, most leaders are challenged to think and behave in ways that feel unfamiliar. Regardless of the crisis, at work, or in the community, crises demand that leaders take their emergency response plan and adapt it as new evidence and factors emerge.
All the while, effective leaders can remain calm and maintain a sense of perspective. According to Gene Klann, author of the book Crisis Leadership, “During a crisis, your goal is to reduce loss and keep things operating as normal as possible.”
As a leader, you are responsible for obtaining the most up to date, reliable, and accurate information. You should avoid getting your information from social media or news outlets with any form of political or social agenda. Biased information from these sources may not provide the information you need to make an informed decision.
You need to communicate with your team. Once essential information is gathered, it should be shared with the entire organization by every means possible. Transparency is key.
Giving everyone information is vital because this will:
- reduce emotional distress caused by the unknown
- diminish fear of the unknown
- provides strategic guidance
- demonstrate to employees that their leaders are concerned, involved, knowledgeable, and on top of the situation.
How to communicate? Face-to-face first, whether in person or virtually. With the number of tools available for hosting and personalizing virtual meetings, there is nothing in the way of meeting. It is essential to review, repeat, and reinforce the information you have shared at every meeting while updating your team on any updates. Repeating what you have helps others retain the information.
You need to let your people know what you are doing to respond to the challenge. During a crisis, time is compressed. Understandably, this creates immense pressure. This means you should act quickly to assuage concerns. You may need to begin acting before you know what is really going on. This looks like being proactive. Your initial reaction may be wrong, but be transparent about the fact that you are acting to protect your people’s jobs. As you make decisions, communicate those actions truthfully and honestly.
You need to be present and available to everyone. During a crisis, leaders should be accessible. While it is not always possible to meet with everyone daily, it is essential to let employees know how to best reach you with status updates and questions.
Understand that organizational processes need to account for flexible leadership ranks during an emergency. Whoever is in charge is whoever is there. An entire operation cannot be hampered because bureaucracy did not account for a key player being unavailable when an emergency struck.
You must be prepared for future problems. As any crisis transitions from its urgent phase, the time pressure will ease, as will the need for on the spot decisions. This is where the plan must evolve into a more complex system that looks at recovery and getting things back to normal, whatever the new normal looks like.
When another emergency unfolds in the future, will you be prepared? Every crisis is different, but can you prepare a plan that is flexible enough to adapt to the next challenge. While improvisation cannot be planned, thinking and team-building exercises can be built into a training program that prepares everyone for a similar, future crisis.
During a crisis, leaders who have relationships with their team and a cultural foundation can then focus on the immediacy of the moment. Doing this requires facing your emotions, showing respect, making connections, and remaining positive.
Recognizing and managing the emotions in any situation, others’ and your own, may help with individual and group resiliency, getting people to safety, and then returning to normal (or a new normal). People with an imbalanced emotional state have difficulty processing well. It is crucial to do anything you can to reduce the emotional stress on people while “doing the job.”
Treat people with real consideration and genuine concern. Show it by paying attention, listening, responding to what people are telling you, and considering what is not being said. This is the place to be an active listener.
Draw on a sense of loyalty, courage, morality, or other principles that tie your crisis response to what is important to people. This is the place to prove that the concern and care you have spoken about in the past is real.
A leader’s attitude is contagious. You continually speak about vision and the future. Leaders are dealers in hope. Even in extreme crises, an upbeat, optimistic attitude keeps people going.
By paying attention to your own emotions, needs, and behaviors, you will be better prepared to handle the human dimensions of the crisis. As a result, you will be more capable of containing the crisis, regaining control, minimizing damage, and effectively preventing, defusing, and reducing the duration of an extremely difficult leadership situation.
All this being said, empathy and compassion are among the most crucial skills for leaders. By being empathetic and compassionate, you can show your team members that you are aware of what they are facing and care about what they are going through.
Be prepared to meet your team emotionally. If you want to know how the people in your charge are doing, start by noticing their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. You can be more available if you use open body language and make eye contact.
Encourage open communication. People on your team will likely be experiencing stress you are not aware of. Welcome them to express their emotions if they feel it would help them. There is evidence that when your team members share and process their feelings, they can better support each other.
Be available for individual communication. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing feelings in a group setting. Therefore, leaders need to be available for private conversations. Be available for your team members to share their concerns with you individually. Be sure to practice active listening and ask thoughtful questions so you can better understand their worries.
You are a leader, but you are also human. Leaders should have the courage to show vulnerability rather than trying to come off as invincible. Show up as your whole self to be a truly compassionate leader.
To lead with compassion and empathy, you must listen attentively when your team members confide in you. Ask them what challenges they are currently facing, whether that is caring for older parents or working remotely while their kids are home.
Allow yourself to be creative. Think about the resources that are available to your team. Could they benefit from a stress-management webinar or training on dealing with ambiguity? Look for ways to provide useful and real resources to help your team members overcome their challenges.
Compassion is a skill that is well worth cultivating–especially now. Remember to create a culture that encourages open communication and tune in to each of your team members. Ideally, this should be done before a crisis. You will serve your team, and your organization by learning to lead in good times and in times of crisis. This will allow you to thrive.
If you find yourself unsure about how to navigate these challenging times as a leader or even as an organization, we are here to help you.