Without warning, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a once-in-a-generation global crisis for managers who have little or no experience in leading their teams under such stressful circumstances.
A crisis is more than difficult. Our usual competencies, from which we normally derive our self-confidence and self-esteem, are temporarily insufficient. For a while, we must attempt to do things knowing that we will fail more often than we will succeed. As a result, people need to know that their leaders will provide the necessary support for them to grow and learn new ways of coping and mastering challenges.
Hard-earned trust between organizational leaders, managers, and their subordinates may be temporarily fractured during this time of crisis. Managers must focus on leading in ways that convincingly support their employees to overcome their fears, recover their self-reliance, and reaffirm their confidence and trust in the organization and its leaders.
Recognizing the four phases of every Crisis
It is important for managers to understand that their employees will typically go through difficult, but predictable, phases in order to accurately counter the stress, distraction, and fear their employees have of making mistakes and failing.
- Shock: Employees’ initial shock when learning their world has turned upside down requires a confident, supportive, and firm hand from their leaders. Employees do not need empty reassurances; they need a genuine commitment to work together to deal with the crisis. Leaders must make it clear at this stage that their teams are not alone, and that their managers are there to help them make decisions together.
- Disorganization: The next phase is often one of unproductive scrambling, arguing, and fretting on the part of employees requiring a steadying presence designed to help people maintain focus on the requisite tasks. Leaders should encourage their teams to focus on key tasks and be open to questions.
- Experimentation: After several weeks, people typically stop worrying about the past and begin to explore what new ways of working will be required. This phase presents a significant challenge for leaders when previously competent and confident employees become apprehensive about learning and applying new skills and knowledge. The fear of making mistakes and being a failure can be crippling for many. Managers must be clear that this is a time for learning the scientific method - to create hypotheses and develop tests to validate or invalidate the assumptions. There are no mistakes if teams learn from the outcomes and apply them going forward.
- Consolidation: After several months of progressive learning, employees will tend to fall into a rhythm, develop a new sense of confidence in mastering new tasks, and stop focusing as much on what they have lost. Too often, however, managers experience such relief at this point that they revert to a maintenance-managing mode. The next several months, however, represent an important opportunity to reflect with their teams. Managers should help their teams focus on how impossible the challenge seemed many months ago, and remind them of their success in applying the ‘scientific method’ to learn, invent, and contribute new knowledge to the organization.
Throughout all four phases of every crisis, the best leaders set clear direction and work to leverage their employees’ potential by engaging commitment, aligning judgment, and developing capabilities. Think L.E.A.D.
Leaders engage their people’s commitment by providing:
- A safe environment,
- Opportunities for challenging and rewarding work,
- Support for professional growth and career growth,
- Meaningful purpose and involvement in decision-making,
- Clarity about accountabilities and associated authorities and resources,
- Appropriate recognition and reward,
- A culture based on trust, fairness, transparency, respect, and reciprocity.
- Leaders align their people’s thinking with the organization above and across by setting the context and sharing their:
- Plans for dealing with uncertainties,
- Logic underlying those plans,
- Assumptions upon which the logic is based,
- Values that will guide their decisions at critical junctures.
Leaders develop their people’s capabilities by:
- Conveying knowledge directly, arranging for training, and helping to transform that learning into skilled knowledge.
- Coaching to guide and encourage people’s thinking about gathering information, analyzing its meaning, and creating hypotheses.
- Encouraging people to experiment with novel approaches to solve the problems, based on these hypotheses.
- While these L.E.A.D. practices should always be the foundation of value-adding leadership, during crises these practices are critical.
Learning during times of crisis
A discussion of the current COVID-19 crisis inevitably leads to the concept of adaptation. All living creatures (viruses and humans) must continuously adapt to changing environmental demands. Adaptation requires more than surviving or recovering. It demands acquiring new capabilities that increase one’s ability to master and thrive in new, unfamiliar, and often-threatening environments.
By helping employees harness their previously “untapped potential” and become even more capable and confident than before, leaders can instill in them a culture of “adaptive readiness.” Employees will begin to take the initiative to search for new opportunities to innovate and more fully apply their innate capacity and creativity to create incremental value.