In last weeks blog, we explored what phases of change may be experienced when operating in crisis mode. The five phases we shared in our framework highlighted the leadership and communication approaches we thought would be helpful. These were ‘what’ should leaders look out for. In this blog, we explore how the phases can be overlaid by a framework which illustrates ‘how’ leaders could helpfully behave during this time.
So, ‘how’ should leaders be behaving and communicating through times of crisis?
As with our base framework, we concluded that leaders just need to practise the best behaviours for building high performing teams and elevate those behaviours.
Victor Frankl, a famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, reminded us that we have a choice about how to respond in any given situation. He encouraged us all to recognise that that there is a space between a stimulus and our response. As leaders, it will help if we try hard not to react and jump in with a solution – sometimes that space is better filled with silence; sometimes that space is best filled with a question.
Unless it is a life-threatening situation, rarely will it be best filled with a direction. Indeed, the choice about how we fill it, may determine whether our relationships and reputation improve or indeed, survive.
As we have observed and supported leaders throughout this extraordinary time, we have concluded that there is a golden thread that connects leadership behaviours through the phases of transition. It is our emotional agility. Defined by Susan David simply, as ‘being flexible with your thoughts and feelings so that you can respond optimally’, in exceptional times like these, we can perhaps consider it’s about the quality of our communication.
Choosing our communication response and acting with authenticity, compassion and sincerity helps us apply our emotional intelligence in ways that can make all the difference to our team members and in future, will make a difference to how we are perceived as leaders, post crisis.
So, here are some of the behaviours that create the golden thread for leaders operating through a crisis, and indeed, beyond:
- Clarity: Offering clarity, rather than certainty. Helping people make sense of what is happening requires us to offer some clarity about how people will be treated during this coming period. Offering transparency about what you know and don’t know, as well as being prepared to show a little vulnerability can go a long way to providing much needed assurance in the short term.
Leadership communication in the initial response phase should attempt to cut through all the noise and offer simple messages about what matters now and how should your team best prioritise.
2. Curiosity: As we all adapt to the changing situation, it will be hugely beneficial if leaders adopt curiosity as a favoured behaviour. The ability to question, clarify and actively listen shows a leader prepared to involve, rather than one who knows all the answers. In a crisis, leaders rarely do, so checking out what is happening; how people are feeling; what is working for the teams; and what isn’t, is crucial.
And be careful not to assume that what has worked in the past will work now. Ask what ideas people have and what do people need to help them meet their objectives and deliver? You may be surprised by the answers.
3. Connection: During uncertain and ambiguous times, a rallying cry which offers a short-term focus and purpose around which everyone gathers can be helpful. Leaders will however need to help team members connect the dots so they are clear why something is a priority when it may not have been before; why something has changed; and when it might change again
Connecting is also about the extent to which we nurture collaboration and encourage cross team connections. As leaders we will spot who is doing well and who may need more help, so connect people and encourage sharing, whether that be of problems and challenges, social interaction or solutions and creative ideas.
Fostering connections may also mean keeping an eye on how and when we meet. Crisis leadership shouldn’t mean long meetings covering every topic all in one go, particularly virtually – try and maintain your discipline of separate meetings for distinct requirements (emergency, operational, strategic, tactical) so that people can maintain their energy levels and so that the connections you do have are focussed.
4. Compassion: irrespective of which phase of transition you find yourself and your teams in, the need to operate with compassion is a given. It is important to remember that this situation is not like a predetermined organisational change, system change or team restructure, where people know why change is happening and can retreat to their homes for energy restoration.
Everyone will have a different lived experience of this situation – some may even have lost loved ones during this time; some are juggling considerable additional responsibilities, covering for absent colleagues or home-schooling children. Have you checked in with your team individually in a truly honest way? Is this (initially temporary) arrangement now sustainable for them and for your organisation?
Being exceedingly human is a crucial requirement of your leadership approach across all phases but never more so than now. Showing compassion may simply mean taking the opportunity to check-in with people rather than checking-up.
Showing compassion may be subtle, through your careful curiosity about home circumstances; demonstrating real empathy and caring; asking what can be done to help someone; providing reassurance where you can; being as flexible as you can. Or it may be overt, like showing your gratitude and appreciation for the little successes and achievements; story telling about what’s going well (as this gives everyone a signal that the organisation that they’re proud of is still working well and they can all contribute); celebrating the ordinary heroes that have stepped up; showcasing how you’re all still succeeding.
5. Change: Signalling how things could change, so that you can all emerge stronger, is a helpful position to take at this time. As it becomes evident that you are nearing another transition, for example, moving beyond a lockdown, some returning to the office, there are some very practical things that can be done to boost individual and team resilience and sustain good performance.
They often start with signalling the need to change. It is important not to ignore what has gone before, yet it can be beneficial to help people focus on what should be retained from the changes they themselves initiated because of their collective experiences.
Facilitating an open and honest conversation about peoples experiences; analysing and assessing what worked for the better; exploring what helped people to be more productive, happier in their work and importantly what changes they would like to keep, opens up a Big Conversation that can enable people to feel a part of an organisation that intends to emerge stronger and thrive under the circumstances.
Involving people in such discussions, enables them to reimagine a future where they can keep the positive changes they brought about as a result of their risk taking and creativity.
It is useful for everyone to make sense of, and find meaning and benefits from, the experiences we have travelled through together. In no way should this suggest that the tragedies of situations like Covid19 in our communities should be overlooked. There is, however, some healing in looking back and finding some silver linings and recognising how we rose to the challenges.
As you transition further to new phases in your organisation, leaders may notice that they find people with very different psychological states – those who are excited, energised and keen to use positive learning experiences to improve the future; our job is to engage them. And those who are change weary or just plain fatigued. Those who have invested an enormous amount in keeping the ship afloat. Our job is to spot who needs rest and recuperation at these points in the journey. Our job is to help them, help themselves.
In short, leadership in a crisis requires us to be more ourselves, but the improved version!
If you would like to add to our thinking and exploration of this topic, we would love to hear your thoughts, comments and experiences.
Sally Evans | Paul Chudleigh
Sally and Paul are both Business Psychologists working in the field of organisational development, in the UK and overseas