The leadership people need in a crisis
“Nothing so undermines organizational change as the failure to think through the losses people face.” – William Bridges
Crisis is never easy for anyone. Sometimes, people forget that leaders are people too and feel the same range of emotions that everyone else feels. The difference is that leaders are expected to exhibit the sense of calm and reason needed so people feel a sense of reassurance and guidance. In times of turbulent change, how an organization, community or even nation will survive and thrive, is dependent largely on the strength of its leadership and its approach to crisis and the team.
How do people typically respond to crisis?
1. One of the primary responses to crisis is fear and anxiety. Wondering what the future will be, how one’s well-being will be affected, how their security will be threatened, are all reasons why people are afraid during challenging times. Fear can trigger all sorts of behavior that includes withdrawal, questioning, and emotional outbursts.
2. Another response to crisis is anger. A common question that comes out of anger and despair is, “Why? Why did this happen? Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to us?” Anger can cause a range of actions or inaction as well. It is important to note that not every angry person will be loud and violent. It is crucial to be vigilant, to observe members of the team for significant or subtle changes that could indicate that anger is present and dealt with.
3. Depression and grief are other responses to crisis. Usually, with crisis comes change. With change come loss, discomfort, and pain. Under normal circumstances, these are challenging emotions to process. As with the other emotions, it is imperative that anyone exhibiting signs of despair, depression, and grief, get the understanding and support they need to navigate what can be a very dark time. This should never be treated loosely or callously where it is assumed a person will just ‘get over it’. There is no prescribed length of time for anyone to effectively face and resolve their emotions and takes patience and authentic care.
In the face of such difficult times, people need leaders who can not only process the crisis for themselves but also help them to do the same. Successful leaders must exhibit certain qualities that can inspire, rally, and comfort their teams to healing and action.
What do people need from their leaders in times of crisis?
People need leaders who have a plan to navigate the crisis. One thing that humans need, despite what it may look like, is order. In times of chaos, though people may run wild, they need a sense of structure, routine, and process. Leaders must have a plan to lead the way. It may not be a perfect plan and it may not have all the answers but it should provide the direction and pace for progress. While leaders should have a framework, depending on the nature of the crisis, this could be the opportune time to get input from the team. Certain types of crisis demand quick, precise decision making and leaders must be prepared to do this as required, as well. I’m becoming fond of the saying, “It is better to ask forgiveness than permission.” Sometimes, a decision just has to be made in the best interest of all concerned. Either way, people need leaders who know what to do and when to do it, generally, and especially in critical times.
People need leaders who communicate during crisis. When people operate with a sense of unknown and uncertainty, is when the grapevine and rumor mill run amok, if left unchecked. Consistent, reliable information is what can counteract that. Lack of communication, secrecy, delayed communication, or incomplete information all contribute to the anxiety people feel. The more they know, the better they can make sense of what is happening and get a sense of peace. Communication should be clear, concise, complete, and candid. Leaders should use a variety of communication channels, as well, that will meet the communication needs of the intended audience, including meetings, one-on-one conversations, letters, memos, website postings, and use of social media.
People need leaders who involve the team during crisis. When emotions are running high, there is something that kicks in to many that drives them to action. People want to do something. People want to help. People want to contribute. Of course, you will have some who will get paralyzed in crisis, or some who will lose hope and the will to give, but for the most part, people will want to make a meaningful impact during crisis. Action can help people focus on a mission that is greater than their current painful experience, especially if it will move them to better, happier times. A leader that is in tune with his or her team, will know the strengths of the team and where they would be best utilized in the crisis response. A great leader will be able to motivate his or her team to unify around a common goal and push beyond their limitations to achieve desired results.
People need support and reassurance from their leaders during crisis. People that may be struggling, need support more than ever. They need to know that their concerns will be heard and given genuine attention. An opportunity to vent, express fear or anger, and ask questions, would be well received. Leaders should be able to listen without judgment. I’ve often seen leaders respond defensively and attack team members that are only saying honestly how they feel and are looking for reassurance, answers, and to just be heard. I suppose my experience in human resources and coaching allows me to listen mindfully with no other reason than to let the other person get things off their chest. I may not agree or I may have an opinion, but it is not about me. It is about the person being able to get closure and clarity, so they can move on.
People need attentive, inclusive, inspirational, tactical, strategic, and positive leaders in times of crisis – leaders who will recognize that the way forward is paved with possibilities and potential that the entire team can achieve together.
• Simmone L. Bowe, MSc, SPHRi, is a seasoned human resource and organization development consultant and trainer, speaker, author, coach and mentor who focuses on helping business owners, leaders and professionals diagnose their people and performance problems and implement strategic solutions. Simmone is a trusted advisor of global leaders providing consultancy support, training, or coaching. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.