Career Development

How to Lead Through a Crisis

May 26, 2020

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Taking the appropriate steps to lead a team through a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, helps employees feel reassured, improving their morale during a confusing and challenging time. Demonstrating that management cares about their health and safety can also inspire employee productivity and loyalty.

In this article, we'll explore how to lead your team during the current crisis, including takeaways that will remain relevant once it has passed.

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Why is leadership important during a crisis?

Crises breed uncertainty. To find answers to the many questions around COVID-19, people are exposed to copious amounts of information that changes often and is not always factual. During such a time, people look to their leaders as sources of stability, truth and encouragement. Great leaders facilitate frequent and open communication that keeps employees informed and reassured amid personal and work lives wracked by disruption.

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How to lead through a crisis

Here are some specific steps you can take to more effectively lead your team through the COVID-19 crisis:

1. Stay positive but realistic

Many businesses are adapting quickly in the face of the economic upheaval that the pandemic has caused, but remaining positive in the midst of change sets a helpful example for your team. They will be more likely to continue working productively from home when they see that their leaders are not panicking.

Additionally, by refusing to dwell on the circumstances you can’t control, you have a better chance at remaining calm. A clear head, in turn, may help you proactively adjust your business strategy to accommodate the changing economic landscape and make other informed, intelligent decisions.

2. Rely on credible information

It's important to help your team separate emotions from facts to stay composed throughout a crisis. Gather information from trusted sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and your county's health department and share this information with your employees via your company intranet or regular emails and video conferences. Be sure to explain how these organizations’ recommendations apply to and affect your company—the work your employees do and the way you operate—specifically.

It is also important to clearly and regularly distribute key information from your company's senior leadership team. Your company may be experiencing any number of changes during this time, so being transparent and consistently communicating can help offer answers and relieve anxieties around those changes.

3. Communicate through appropriate channels

Any degree of human connection is comforting during this period of social distancing, so consider offering daily chat updates and weekly emails with bi-weekly or monthly video calls to deliver essential information and answer employees’ questions “face-to-face”. By repeating and reinforcing information via a variety of channels and on a regular basis, you help ensure everyone knows the proper procedures for how to maintain operations and productivity.

4. Emphasize preparedness

Communicate the plan for how the business will function throughout the crisis. For example, you may choose to reduce or cancel business travel, encourage anyone who feels unwell to work from home or close your office and have all employees work remotely. If your team does need to be in the workplace, communicate the strategies you will implement to keep everyone safe and healthy. This could mean moving desks further apart, reducing the number of people working in each room and frequently cleaning objects, surfaces and high-traffic areas.

If you need to modify your business plan because of government shutdowns, be transparent with your team and communicate your response clearly and concisely to give them increased confidence in their job security.

5. Be present and available

During a crisis, it's particularly important for leadership to be present and available to guide employees. If you’re responsible for leading the company, employees may not feel comfortable contacting you directly if they have not had much, if any, interaction with you previously. Highlight your accessibility by encouraging them to contact you via email or online messaging, or scheduling office hours so that you can address their questions and concerns over video conference and in real-time.

As a team leader, it may be helpful to hold a short, daily “stand-up” meeting with your team to ensure they understand everything that needs to be accomplished that day and have what they need to do it. Don’t forget to protect your one-on-one time so that your employees are also able to get more personalized attention and direction.

6. Build a community

It’s not just possible, but essential, to strengthen your company’s community during times of crisis. In addition to communicating how your business will operate during the crisis, you should also focus on the impact the crisis has on your team's well-being. Create opportunities for collaboration and celebration with your team, and encourage them to reach out to each other directly to do the same. Make sure employees are aware of resources, including those that your company may provide, that can help them better manage the sometimes overwhelming emotions that accompany a crisis like this.

7. Request feedback

Ask your team to give you feedback on how they're feeling during the crisis and what more you can do to help them feel supported. Your questions might range from the logistical (like, “How can we as a company improve the technical support provided?”) to the emotional (“What can we do to make it easier for you to work while also caring for our family?"). While you may not be able to alleviate all concerns, checking on your team confirms that you genuinely care about them beyond just their performance as an employee.

8. Evaluate your policies

Consider re-evaluating policies related to travel, remote work, typical operating hours and sick leave or paid time off. It may make sense to modify your usual company rules to meet CDC recommendations and better support your team's emotional needs. Your team will remember how you put their physical, mental and emotional health first, inspiring long-term loyalty.

9. Dedicate resources for future crises

Once the COVID-19 crisis ends, the pressure will ease and you will have a chance to assess how your policies and systems operate in times of both prosperity and crisis. Consider technological solutions to facilitate consistent, multi-channel communication. Explore training programs that teach your employees techniques for developing their resiliency, so that they can prepare for and persevere through future challenges. Introduce regular company or team-building exercises, both in person and virtually, to further foster the connections that employees are forming with you and one another during this time.

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