How to Lead in Times of Crisis

Leading during a crisis requires a different skillset, one that may not have been tested before. Read on for 12 tips to help your team perform to their best in challenging times, particularly when teams are required to work remotely.

Communicate, communicate, communicate!

This is a good rule generally, but during a crisis it is even more important than usual. If we are lacking certainty, or there are gaps in our knowledge or understanding of a situation then our brains have a tendency to make stories up…often the worst case scenario. David Rock identified 5 triggers that cause a negative reaction in people when they are absent or threatened (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness). In a crisis any number of these can be under threat so when you’re communicating, do all you can to provide these for people.

What if it was your best friend?

Inevitably during challenging times there will be high emotions – likely frustration, concern, anger, anxiety, fear etc. We are often not our best in these circumstances. Now is a time to be demonstrating empathy. I often ask clients who are feeling angry or frustrated at something that has happened to afford the most generous interpretation of events. If your best friend had done this, what might they have been going through?

What’s the highest priority?

You are unlikely to have all the answers, but being able to provide as much clarity as you can to your team is critical. Be clear on your highest priority (e.g. increasing turnover, reducing overheads, retaining customers). If you can provide clarity on the high level priorities your team can focus on working on them. 

Be confident

If you panic, your team will panic. do your best to be confident. Even if that’s as small as being clear on what the next best step is given your priorities. Try to find somewhere you can share, or get support to talk about your concerns, whether that’s with peers, a coach or a mentor.

It’s ok not to have all the answers

Often as leaders we feel like we should be able to answer everything our team puts to us. It is ok to show a bit of vulnerability. Use your team and involve them in brainstorming (You could use a tool like LEGO® Serious Play® to do this). Some of the most creative ideas I’ve seen in a crisis have come from team members on the front line. 

Build trust

At the time of writing this blog, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Enforced remote working shines a harsh light on where there is lack of trust in teams. However this doesn’t just apply to teams who are home working. Those in different locations, shift patterns, timezones may also suffer from lack of trust. The key here is to focus on output rather than time spent at the desk. Be clear on what’s expected aligned to the key priorities and allow your team to deliver those in the way that is most effective for them. 

Set the waterline

If a crisis means you aren’t sitting at the next desk, or just round the corner it is less easy for those “Could you just have a quick look at this…” conversations. When we have to pick up the phone, or send a message we often think twice about whether it’s worth bothering that person. A great exercise for being clear on this is called “Setting the Waterline”

Imagine that you are the captain of a ship, up on the bridge, and your crew (your team) are down on deck. If one of them finds a tiny hole above the waterline that isn’t causing any issue and that they can repair easily they should just get on and do that without bothering you. If however, they find a huge hole below the waterline that’s letting in gallons of water, then you’re going to want to know about that. Going through an exercise of “setting the waterline” is a great way to provide clarity on what they can just get on with or make decisions about, and what they need to come to you to discuss.

What are the ground rules?

A crisis often requires new ways of working. Having a shared understanding with the team of how you are going to work together and your expectations of each other is key. In the current crisis you might discuss how you are going to connect as a team, and how often; how decisions are going to be made and what’s a realistic expectation around availability and response time (let’s face it home schooling and home working do not go particularly well together!) 

Staying connected

How are you going to stay connected in a time of crisis? At heart we are social beings and for good reason. In our caveman ancestry if you became isolated from your tribe you were much less likely to stay safe.

If your usual ways of working are interrupted how can you maintain that need for connection and relatedness? How can you build  in time for the equivalent of “water cooler banter” which is at the heart of building relationships?

Don’t stop the conversation

As I said, in times of crisis we often react from a place of fear, not showing our best side. This can be exacerbated if we stop talking to each other and really on email and messages. My post from a few years ago discusses the perils of written communication when it comes to creating conflict as there is so much room for misinterpretation. My general rule of thumb is that if you’ve gone back and forth more than twice, just pick up the phone or jump on a video call before things escalate.

Use the technology

If crisis has us working apart then using technology is key – be that video conferencing software, messaging apps, task management etc. There are no shortage of tools out there. Whilst the current crisis has had many companies running around trying to get remote working technology in place, building technology requirements into your future business continuity plans will be key. 

Search for the opportunities

Often in crisis there is opportunity. Looking for creative ways to delight your customers when they least expect it, the opportunity to give team members more accountability and step up, previously untapped revenue streams, time to work on this things that have been on the back burner for months. By looking for the opportunities in a crisis you will be much better placed to weather the storm and come out the other side strong!

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