The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis unlike any other in modern times. These leadership practices will help you respond effectively to the outbreak – and to future challenges.
The coronavirus pandemic is testing the leaders of companies and organisations in every sector around the world.
Writing for McKinsey Quarterly, Gemma D’Auria and Aaron De Smet say what you need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviours and mindsets that will support your organisation and community. They outline five such behaviours that can help you navigate this – and future – crises.
THE CORONAVIRUS CHALLENGE
The scale and unpredictability of the coronavirus pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on leaders. It has the hallmarks of a ‘landscape scale’ crisis: an unexpected event or sequence of events of huge scale and speed, resulting in uncertainty, disorientation, a feeling of lost control and strong emotional disturbance.
Recognising that your company faces a crisis is the first step. This is difficult, especially during a slow-developing crisis. It requires you to overcome the normalcy bias, which can cause you to underestimate both the possibility of a crisis and its impact. Once you recognise a crisis, you can mount a response. But you can’t respond as you would in a routine emergency, by following pre-prepared plans.
FIVE WAYS TO LEAD IN A CRISIS
When things are uncertain, effective responses are largely improvised, across a wide range of actions. Not just temporary moves (e.g. working from home) but adjustments to ongoing business practices (e.g. adopting new collaborative tools), which can be beneficial even after the crisis has passed. Follow these five practices to respond effectively.
1) Organise to respond to the crisis. In routine emergencies you can rely on a command-and-control structure to manage operations. But during a crisis characterised by uncertainty, a top-down response won’t work. You can’t collect information or make decisions fast enough. Set clear priorities for the response and empower others to find and implement solutions.
Organise a network of teams. This is an adaptable assembly of groups, united by a common purpose. During a crisis they carry out responses outside of normal operations, as well as adjustments to routine business activities. In many cases this will include an integrated nerve centre covering workforce protection, supply-chain stabilisation, customer engagement and financial stress testing.
Effective networks of teams are:
- Multidisciplinary. Crises present a degree of complexity that requires experts from different fields.
- Designed to act. Experts must gather information, devise solutions, put them into practice and refine them as they go.
- Adaptable, reorganising, expanding or contracting as teams learn more about the crisis and as things change.
Foster collaboration and transparency. Distribute authority and share information. Promote psychological safety so people can openly discuss ideas, questions and concerns.
2) Elevate leaders during a crisis. Empower others to direct many aspects of the crisis response. Grant them the authority to make decisions without needing approvals. Establish an architecture for decision making, so that accountability is clear and decisions are made by appropriate people. Empower the right people to make decisions. They must be able to learn quickly and make corrections.
At the start of a crisis, appoint decision makers. But as the crisis evolves, new crisis-response leaders will naturally emerge – and they won’t always be senior executives. In routine emergencies, experience is valuable. But in novel, landscape-scale crises, character is crucial. The following qualities are key:
- Deliberate calm: the ability to detach from a fraught situation and think clearly about how to navigate it. This is often found in well-grounded individuals who possess humility but not helplessness.
- Bounded optimism: confidence combined with realism. Early in a crisis, if leaders display excessive confidence in spite of obviously difficult conditions, they can lose credibility. Project confidence that the organisation will find a way through, but also show that you recognise the uncertainty and have begun to grapple with it by collecting more information.
3) Make decisions amid uncertainty. Don’t wait for a full set of facts to emerge before determining what to do. Facts won’t become clear soon enough. But don’t resort to intuition. Continually collect information as the crisis unfolds and observe how well your responses work.
Pause frequently from crisis management, assess the situation from multiple angles, anticipate what may happen next – then act. The pause-assess-anticipate-act cycle helps you maintain a state of deliberate calm and avoid overreacting to new information. Two cognitive behaviours help:
- Updating involves revising ideas based on new information teams collect and knowledge they develop.
- Doubting helps you consider ongoing and potential actions critically and decide whether they need to be modified, adopted or discarded.
These help you mediate your conflicting impulses to come up with solutions based on what you’ve done before and to make up new solutions. Bring your experiences to bear while accepting new insights as they emerge. Once you decide what to do, act with resolve. Visible decisiveness builds your organisation’s confidence in you and motivates the network of teams to sustain its search for solutions.
4) Demonstrate empathy. Deal with the human tragedy as a first priority. In a landscape-scale crisis, people’s minds turn first to their own survival and other basic needs. Will I be sick or hurt? Will my family? What happens then? Who will care for us?
Don’t assign communications or legal staff to address these questions. A crisis is when it’s most important for you to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Acknowledge the personal and professional challenges that employees and their loved ones experience. Each crisis will affect people in particular ways, so pay attention to how people are struggling and take corresponding measures to support them.
It’s vital that you not only demonstrate empathy but also accept it from others and invest time in your own well being. As stress, fatigue and uncertainty build up, your ability to process information, remain level-headed and exercise good judgement might diminish. Encourage colleagues to express concern – and heed the warnings.
5) Communicate effectively. Maintain transparency and provide frequent updates. Crisis communications often hit the wrong notes. They take an overconfident, upbeat tone in the early stages of a crisis – and raise suspicions about what leaders know and how well they’re handling the crisis. Authority figures are prone to suspend announcements while they wait for more facts to emerge and decisions to be made.
Neither approach is reassuring. Be transparent. Be clear about what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re doing to learn more. Thoughtful, frequent communication shows you’re following the situation and adjusting your responses as you learn more. This helps reassure stakeholders. See that each audience’s concerns, questions and interests are addressed.
Have members of the crisis-response team speak firsthand about what they are doing. Communications shouldn’t stop once the crisis has passed. Offer an optimistic, realistic outlook. This can have a powerful effect on employees and other stakeholders, inspiring them to support the recovery.
The consequences of the coronavirus pandemic could last for longer and present greater difficulties than anyone anticipates. Embrace these five practices to help establish or reinforce behaviours and values that can support your organisation during this crisis – and prepare it well for the next large-scale challenge.