Leading in a Crisis: Becoming a Better Leader During a Global Pandemic

Danielle Dahl, MS Management and Leading Teams

If you have been a leader for any length of time, you know how stress can impact you, your employees, and in turn, the organization. As the leader, your response to stress sets the tone. Likely, you haven’t experienced “crisis level stress,” like a global pandemic that shut down businesses, in your career. It can be challenging to manage your stress during this time, while simultaneously leading your team through their fear and trying to navigate the company mission successfully. Here are five helpful tips on leading in a crisis.

Remain open and curious

According to a VitalSmarts study, 53% of managers are more closed-minded and controlling when they are exposed to stress. This staggering percentage means that more than half of us are setting a tone that makes our employees view us as unapproachable. You can show an employee that you are open-minded by asking questions and using active listening techniques, such as listening to understand. Leave your door open, and make sure your staff knows that you know and are there to help them; however, you can. Also, take a moment before reacting and make sure that what you are going to say is actually what you are trying to convey. Don’t just respond with the first thought that enters your brain, as this rarely works well. To that end, always strive and appear calm.

Remain calm and in control

The same study shows that 45% of managers are more upset and emotional than calm and in control. When leading in a crisis, your reactions have a direct impact on the people you supervise. If you are stressed, then they will also be. Find some tools that help you destress. Try to communicate using facts and not your thoughts or feelings. Also, since you likely oversee people with varying opinions, you must remain neutral and try not to share your opinion. Otherwise, you will probably end up alienating someone on your team.  Lastly, this is not the time to start giving people tons of orders. Let them know what the goals are for the day or week and allow them to set their own pace. They are also going through extreme amounts of stress and trying to do the best job they can.

Use empathy and compassion

It is important to use empathy and compassion now more than ever. Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. According to Suzanne Lucas, there are four ways to improve the way you demonstrate understanding:

  1. Be quiet, inside and out 
  2. Fully watch as well as listen
  3. Ask yourself what you are feeling
  4. Test your instinct to become empathic

Use this crisis as your chance to recognize the hard times that your staff is experiencing. They are likely going to be changed by this experience. They are evaluating the things they hold dear and believe to be true. They might be investing in themselves and their side hustles. They are going to come out of this whole crisis differently than they entered it. Let them know you understand that and make sure that you have a solid succession plan in place.

Plan for the future

When leading in a crisis it is the perfect time to hold conversations with your employees about goals and what they want for their careers. You might have some people who do not come back from being furloughed, and you will be under far less stress if you already know who is waiting for their opportunity to grow. Having a plan and then a backup plan is a key to leadership and will help you do your job, by keeping the organization staffed and moving in the correct direction.

Or possibly, you have someone who is staying, but you know from speaking with them that they are looking to do something different, and then you are told that the company needs to cut some positions. The knowledge you have can help you make the right decision.

The key to all of this is to be the best leader that you can be. If you have an excellent report with your staff before the crisis, this will likely be easier to manage. Cultivate trust regularly. Be the kind of leader that motivates your staff on the mundane days, and they will rally when you need them. Build trust and appreciation, and the team will do whatever they can to assist you. 

The fact that you are here, trying to improve your leadership style, says a lot about the kind of leader you are. Leadership style is unique to each of us, and no one knows your team better than you do. Stay calm, listen, plan, and be empathic, and you will manage this crisis as best as you can.

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