By Anjan Pathak
For any aspiring leader, going through a crisis is a rite of passage. After all, it’s easy to be a good manager when everything is going well, but your ability as a leader is truly tested when there is a true crisis.
While crisis management may be near the top of a manager’s priority list, it is one of the trickiest areas to navigate. Thus, it’s not surprising that crisis preparation for a company can cost anywhere from $60,000 to $500,000 (depending on the industry and location). In comparison, unprepared companies in a crisis can spend close to millions of dollars on mitigation while at the same time losing hundreds of millions in reputation and shareholder value.
The real issue with crisis management is that it is incredibly unpredictable. You never know when or what kind of crisis will strike. Consider the Covid-19 pandemic. If someone had told us in 2019 that the world would be in a two-year lockdown with a complete shift to a remote world, we would have dismissed it as a massive hoax.
Meanwhile, a Spiceworks survey found that while 95% of organizations have a crisis recovery plan in place, 23% never really end up testing the effectiveness of that plan. And of those who don’t test their plans, 61% say it’s due to a lack of time, while 53% say it’s due to inadequate resources.
So, it’s safe to say that most leaders are not only mentally unprepared to deal with a sudden crisis, but they are also unsure of how to manage their workforce in a high-risk situation.
How to be a successful crisis leader
Depending on the stage of a crisis, a leader is expected to play different roles. For example, in the early stages of the crisis, when its nature is ambiguous, you will be expected to be a problem solver and throw out different ideas on what can be done. In the later stages, when the facts and figures become much more obvious, you will be expected to switch gears and make the hard decisions.
However, the elephant in the room (so to speak) is how to be a better leader throughout the crisis management process. That is, how can you be a leader who effectively assists your team in resolving a crisis while not having them despise you in the end? To put things into perspective, here are a few pointers on how to be a better leader in the face of a crisis:
1. Acknowledge the problem
Leaders sometimes refuse to acknowledge that they are in a crisis, fail to inform their people of the situation’s reality, make poor judgments, and as a result become ineffective crisis leaders. If your usual strategy is to sweep the problem under the rug, don’t. Nobody likes to be kept in the dark, and the same goes for your employees too.
According to a survey of non-desk workers at large companies, 84% said they don’t get enough information from top management, and 75% said their employers don’t keep them up to date on changes in policies and goals. Almost the same number (74%) said “consistent” messages from senior management are important to them, despite the fact that they are few and far between.
Treat your employees with respect and communicate the reality of the situation in a transparent way. However, you should know that transparency doesn’t equate to negativity. Even if you have bad news to deliver, don’t fixate on that. Inspire your team to look at the bigger picture instead of what will happen in the short term. Sit down with your team and talk about the next steps, the risks associated with the action plan (if any), and what can be done right away to mitigate the problem.
2. Champion “self-leadership” among your people
When faced with a crisis, your employees may feel at odds because they are simply expected to follow directions. In normal circumstances, having people do exactly what you want may appear ideal, but in times of crisis, such passive employees are frequently the ones who suffer the most. They expect you, their leader, to do all of the thinking for them, and as a result, they are a liability rather than an asset in a situation.
Leading decisively is the most important thing you can do to manage a crisis. And in order to lead decisively in a crisis, you must establish a front line of decision makers who can assist you in fast-tracking, implementing, and communicating the plan to the rest of the internal teams.
That is why, as a leader and an organization, you should always strive to transform your employees into organizational champions. Give your employees a mission, a role, and a sense of ownership in their work. When faced with a crisis, keep in mind:
- Having a vision helps your people stay grounded and focus on what’s important.
- Having a specialized role allows employees to be more autonomous and actively contribute solutions, ideas, and expertise.
- Having a sense of ownership instills pride in one’s work, which can be pivotal for employees to stay motivated throughout the various stages of the crisis.
Empower these decision makers to take the initiative whenever possible, and clearly define what needs to be escalated, when, and to whom. Your default should be to make decisions from the bottom-up rather than the top-down.
3. Cut the red tape and reduce friction points
There is no time or space for extensive deliberations during a crisis. One of a leader’s top priorities during a crisis should be to limit the number of friction points. A friction point can be anything that is a hurdle to making quick decisions—from an unnecessary hierarchy in the approval process to a lack of emergency finances.
Building on the previous point of encouraging self-leadership, leaders can reduce bureaucracy by selecting a small group of team leaders to expedite decision-making. As a leader, you don’t really have the luxury of second-guessing, so when it comes to managing a crisis effectively, it all comes down to:
- Establishing a no-nonsense priority list. You don’t want your employees wasting their time and energy on the wrong things. Document your priorities early in the crisis, get your entire team on the same page, and leave some breathing room to make any changes to the plan as you go forward.
- Give complete autonomy to your frontline decision makers. While it’s likely you’ll see plenty of mistakes being made, that is an inevitable part of this process.
- Prioritize the lowest-impact decisions first. Honestly, making the wrong decision, especially when under extreme pressure, is all too common. That’s why it’s a good idea to tackle those decisions first that won’t make much of an impact, and only then move to higher impact decision-making. Doing so ensures that your employees have a realistic understanding of what’s at stake while also instilling confidence in themselves.
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4. Don’t ditch your empathy along the way
Perhaps now more than ever, your employees need you. In times of crisis, taking care of your people is one of the most important things you can do.
Crisis leadership entails not only empathy for those affected, but also the ability to pinpoint the source of problems by asking the right questions to the right people at the right time. Empathy is the equivalent of telling your employees, “I care about your satisfaction and well-being,” but ensuring that people don’t see it as a weakness from your side.
Employees are more committed to companies when they feel like more than just a cog in the machine. Empathy enables you to respond to the needs of your team with openness, rather than mistrust. It’s all about striking a balance between compassion and reality.
But the true challenge is how to be empathetic while ensuring that team goals are still being met. Here are a few tips that will help you balance your empathetic side with your managerial side:
- Build a strong culture of recognition. Meaningful recognition, no matter how minuscule, can have an incredible impact on your employees’ morale. Especially in times of crisis, even the small act of saying a genuine “thank you” can give your employees the boost that they were missing.
- Conduct weekly informal check-ins. Schedule at least five minutes of one-on-one time with your employees every week. Make these meetings more personal by inviting employees to discuss their week’s highs and lows. Make sure that these discussions cover both the personal and professional aspects of your employees’ lives so that you have a complete picture of their mental health. Make sure that you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or a mental health plan to assist employees who may require help.
- Start advocating for realistic goals and productivity standards. Dealing with a crisis is not only hampering your well-being but also the well-being of your employees. It’s common to go through burnout, stress, and anxiety in such situations. As a leader, it’s your job to create a positive and uplifting atmosphere where employees feel that they don’t need to get burned out to accomplish something. You can start with a goal-setting process using the SMART goals framework to help your team understand what goals are actually feasible.
5. Have a robust and adaptive communication strategy
A full-fledged crisis response will need significant support and participation from multiple internal teams within the organization. As a result, whatever plan you end up implementing will almost certainly be comprehensive, multilayered, and integrated across the organization.
However, in order for such a comprehensive plan to be effective, your internal teams must be aware of what, when, and how they are expected to carry out their respective parts. And that is only possible if you have a solid communication plan in place to deal with such high-risk situations.
This is where having an adaptive communication toolbox can help leaders cut through the noise and help the team collaborate effectively through all stages of the crisis. Along with having a clear communication strategy, it also helps when you and your team have received prior communication training. While this tip may appear to be obvious, anyone who has been through an organizational crisis understands how different communication in a crisis is from, say, a project launch.
Learning valuable skills now will prepare you for a future crisis
The leadership qualities required in a crisis are very different from those needed in normal circumstances. We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can control how we react and deal with situations.
That is why, when discussing crisis management, terms like “adaptive,” “agile,” and “decisive” are frequently used. Unless you, as a leader, are willing to change the way you communicate, work, and lead, emerging unscathed from a crisis is a near-impossible task.
About the Author
Anjan Pathak is the co-founder and CTO of Vantage Circle, a cloud-based employee engagement platform, and Vantage Fit, an all-in-one corporate wellness platform.
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