At some point in every leader’s career, they’ll be faced with a crisis. It may be a problem that’s major and public, or something contained and private. It may be particular to your organization, or—as is the case with the Covid-19 pandemic—a situation that’s being experienced globally. Whatever the circumstances, a crisis is a time of intense difficulty, stress, and complexity. There’ll be no one perfect way to remedy the problem, no easy path toward recovery.
When a crisis strikes, we tend to respond instinctively, but those initial impulses may not be especially productive. They may even be counterproductive. An equally suboptimal response is freezing in place, doing nothing and hoping that “it” will all go away. “It” won’t. More likely, a potentially manageable crisis left unresolved will turn into a full-blown disaster. Leaders must be able to act quickly. They need to do so rationally, and not by going with their gut—whether their gut is telling them to jump in and start flailing around or to ignore what’s going on. To tackle a crisis, leaders must be able to create flexible plans, communicate clearly, lead with compassion, and manage the post-crisis “new normal.”
Plan—and be ready to shift gears
In the face of a crisis, quick action can keep a crisis from escalating into a disaster. Although you won’t have all the information or resources you need, it’s imperative to act both quickly and deliberately. Work with your team to assess the situation, gather input, and formulate a plan. Harvard Business School researchers found that the most successful teams cycled among different ways of working—alongside your team, slightly back to monitor work, and apart to see the big picture. As a leader, continuously monitor, adjust, and even reformulate your plan as new information emerges. Be ready and willing to pivot, and prepare for the inevitable “one step forward/two steps back” setbacks.
Communicate often and early
During a crisis, there’s typically a lot of noise out there. Make sure that your team understands day-to-day what they need to do—and why. Address your team’s concerns directly. Don’t contribute to the noise by sugarcoating the situation or trying to have an answer for everything. When delivering difficult news, be direct and honest. Establish a communications routine and stick with it, even if there’s nothing to say other than “nothing new at the moment.” When progress has been made, even if it’s minor, be sure to share it so that people don’t despair. Communications should be two-way: listen to what your team is saying—and not saying. The information and insights they have may surprise you.
Lead with compassion
For your team to persevere through times of pressure and uncertainty, they need compassion from you. Amy Gallo points out in “What Your Coworkers Need Right Now Is Compassion,” her Harvard Business Review article, “This is not a time to move away from kindness and caring, even if your brains nudge us in that direction.” One thing the coronavirus pandemic has shown us is that a crisis is mentally, emotionally, and physically draining. Each day, as you weigh your priorities and decisions, take the needs of others into consideration. Be on the lookout for burnout—in your team and yourself—and take steps to protect against it.
Manage the post-crisis “new normal”
After a crisis has abated, you should expect a “new normal”—new processes, strategies, and culture—to emerge. Adjusting to the new normal both emotionally and cognitively may take a while, but it’s your job to help your team recover and heal. Once the most immediate and challenging aspects of a crisis are under control, think about the kinds of crises that your organization is likely to experience in the future. What should you and your team be doing to prepare? What worked well this time, what not so well? Are there any preventative measures you can put in place to keep a crisis from occurring to begin with?
As a leader, you’ll find yourself having to manage your way through and out of a crisis. Don’t wait for the next crisis to hit to get yourself prepared. Interested in learning more about how you and your team can better handle crises? With the July Harvard ManageMentor release, we’ve updated the Crisis Management topic with new lessons that provide relevant and practical learning that will move your organization forward.
What advice do you have for dealing with a crisis?