To lead effectively during a crisis, the leader needs to be deliberate about managing her/his energy and coping with the worries that inevitably hit us as human beings. Our fears can permeate all areas of our thought activity if not managed actively. If we allow this to happen, it is difficult to instil optimism and help others cope. In a crisis, as the current one, we often experience worries about our own family and our employees, and we face difficult business trade-offs and prioritizations. At the same time, the leader must be able to be focused and fully present in very different dialogues. Therefore, we need a mental coping strategy. Crisis research shows that having different mental boxes for each domain, or compartmentalising, is an effective coping strategy during crisis. Boxing in worries allows us to shift in and out of the different domains of concern, depending on what we are dealing with. Moreover, the mental boxes will enable us to place the worries that pop up in the appropriate box for later consideration. Therefore, sorting our worries and mental energy into different boxes also helps to sequence the treatment of the many issues, and that helps us secure a focused use of our energy. Take care of yourself as a leader to be able to take care of others. Besides the mental coping that also involves eating correctly and getting enough sleep to preserve your capacity.
As leaders, we need to face the situation and be straight-forward about what we know, what we do not know yet; and, the steps we are taking to get to know. Some leaders shield their organisations from unpleasant truths out of a good intention; however, hiding facts or realistic judgements can come back badly as the scenario evolves. Leaders need to face the truth and encourage the surfacing of data, considerations and questions which can inform decision making. Leaders need to display the courage of sharing worst-case scenarios along with judgements of the expected development.
To promote such openness, the leader is responsible for creating participative safety in which people can air their fears and considerations. Practically, leaders should create the fora for asking questions; knowing that many of them cannot be answered. The leader should openly appreciate getting the questions and be accurate in answering with facts; what you know; what you are not at liberty to answer; the unknowns; the steps that are being taken and the steps that are being considered. In particular, it is essential in times of crisis, to be honest when you do not know or is not a liberty to tell.
In the intensity of crisis communication with many worried questions from employees, some leaders feel an urge to 'save the day'. Hence, they commit to things they cannot deliver on or assure concerned employees about future development. A key component, in effective crisis leadership, is credibility and authenticity; hence, making realistic promises and keeping them without too much delay is imperative. Overpromising and underdelivering is a dangerous cocktail, whereas awareness and precision as to what you can control and promise builds credibility.
Decision making in uncertainty is different from other complex decisions, because it is difficult to forecast how things will evolve. Actions need to be decided based on their mitigating effects and decided stepwise as developing a ‘masterplan’ is not possible. Acting provides the cornerstones in maintaining control in situations where predictability is low. Knowing ‘what to do’ and engaging in ‘getting it done’ instils confidence in threatening situations.
The focus on identifying what you can control, and controlling it is imperative because many people focus on what they cannot control. That incurs a risk of being overwhelmed by the uncontrollable, ambiguous and uncertain situation. Such feelings can be counterbalanced by ensuring that people can engage in controllable measures to which they can contribute.
We all need to cope with our worries and be engaging in meaningful activities which matter to others, be that colleagues or customers, is a strong contributor to dealing with stressful situations. In a crisis, the importance for the leader to engage in sense-making related to the ‘non-crisis’ purpose of the company becomes a source of stability. Hence, the leader should increase the communication about how each (perhaps mundane) activity is related to the overall direction and how the employee does something good for specific people, be that customers, suppliers, colleagues or collaboration partners. In a crisis, it is easy to start thinking "but, what does it matter…?". Therefore, linking to the long-term direction of the company and relating every activity to something that matters to someone strengthens sense-making, which is under pressure during a crisis.
Sometimes, leaders refrain from engaging with the organisation when there are no news or changes to the situation – don’t! Establish recurring two-way communication flows, also in prolonged periods of status quo. There are three principles which allow the leaders to be present and maintain communication. First, if there are no news about content, you should be communicating about the process. What is going on and what is planned to collect data, clarify issues, secure resources, etc. In the same vein, which meetings are held, who participates and what is being discussed. The process insight and constant awareness about when the next communication check-in will take place are vital to feeling informed. Moreover, it supports a sense of things being taken care of. Second, communicate about tasks, daily business, stuff that needs to get done, efforts, coordination, etc. to maintain a sense of normality. In a crisis, the feeling of not being able to contribute is demotivating, so give people something to contribute with to maintain business and position for faster recovery of the normal. Thirdly, communicate news rapidly and precisely, also when you do not have full information. Communicate what we know; what we do not know; and, what is being done to find out more. Do not hesitate with updates as in crisis a massive amount of side communication will occur, and misconceptions thrive if no credible timely source of information is available – be that source!