Crisis Leadership: Leading in Times of Great Uncertainty



It has almost become a cliché to say that we are living in unprecedented times because of COVID-19. The global fear that we are all experiencing can be immobilizing. Indeed, this fear is well-founded, with cases worldwide rapidly increasing. To make matters even worse, the number of cases has been widely underreported because of a lack of accurate testing capacity. Entire nations are shut down with stay-at-home orders, in addition to the millions of people who are self-quarantined. The impact on the world economy is devastating: business after business is closing and unemployment is nearing all-time highs. 

Those who are employed are often heard to say how thankful they are to have a job. This is particularly true with those in essential industries like healthcare, construction, law enforcement, infrastructure, and energy. Yet even in these industries, many employees have been laid off or forced to take leave without pay, in hopes that they will have their jobs in the future. Furthermore, even for those employees who still have jobs, many have extreme anxiety, and wonder if they are exposing themselves to the virus by going to work or if they will be the next to get laid off. 

While there were initially reports of individuals, teams, and communities pulling together, the cumulative toll that the virus is taking—combined with so much economic uncertainty—has impacted virtually all workers. As this crisis wears on, leaders are finding that employee productivity is being replaced by less desirable behaviors, such as malaise, anxiety, absenteeism, negativism, shortness of temper, and distraction. Leaders are struggling with how to keep their employees engaged and return to productivity. What can leaders do to re-engage their employees more fully?

We will provide below several suggestions, but mainly, leaders need to understand that the techniques, behaviors, and management tools they have previously used to motivate employees will not work in this unfamiliar state of affairs. In other words, doing more of the same at a higher intensity can actually have the opposite effect: further diminishing productivity. During this pandemic, leaders need to adopt a different set of behaviors to re-engage their staffs, whether working face-to-face or remotely. In most cases, leaders will need to slow down…in order to eventually speed up!

Leaders must think from the perspective of the employees that they serve. What do employees who are anxious, fearful, depressed, distracted, exhausted, emotional, irritated, or uncommunicative need?

First and foremost, all of these employees need understanding and empathy. It is important for them to know that their leader can relate to their feelings and is fully supportive and appreciative of what they are going through. Leaders should ask employees what they need in order to feel more secure and, when possible, fulfill those requests. Simply put, empathy can go a long way toward restoring an employee’s equilibrium and re-engagement.

Second, these employees need their feelings to be recognized as normal and appropriate for the situation, rather than shameful. This is not a time for leaders to use any kind of “carrot or stick” approach to motivation. Leaders need to demonstrate this patience by being vulnerable themselves and by acknowledging the fears and anxieties that they may also have.

Third, these employees need the opportunity to express their feelings in a safe and nonjudgmental venue. Being able to talk openly with other employees to further normalize their feelings can help reduce levels of anxiety and depression. Having daily times for teams to talk in small groups can go a long way to reducing employee apprehension. Encouraging employees to take breaks together, eat lunch together, and meet informally, all while maintaining social distance as appropriate to prevent contagion (or connecting remotely to maintain human contact), demonstrates understanding and support on the part of leadership. 

Fourth, these employees need structure and consistency. Having clarity as to what is expected and providing small, achievable goals will help employees stay engaged. The more specific and achievable the tasks, the better. Accomplishing several small tasks can be more rewarding at times like this than working on issues that are long-term and more conceptual. Creating consistency in the workplace with regard to schedules, expectations, and agendas can reduce anxiety and provides employees with a greater sense of security.

Fifth, these employees need communication—possibly, even over-communication. In a crisis, the leader becomes coach, inspirational communicator, counselor, and hand-holder. Leaders may need to hold even more meetings than usual, whether in person or online. However, such meetings should be brief, focused, outcome-specific, and tactical. At a minimum, leaders must be cognizant of being in touch more regularly with employees and taking time to listen to concerns, no matter how small.

Finally, leaders need to reassure employees that they are important and that the jobs they are performing are valuable to the organization. We all need to know that we are needed and important to the enterprise; this is even more critical in times of uncertainty. 

Because we have never been in a worldwide pandemic before, leaders need to become more versatile and willing to try new behaviors better suited to the crisis. This is a time for leaders to show their own humanity and vulnerability. During a prolonged crisis, increased productivity will happen only when employees feel as safe, as secure, and as understood as possible. This is the leader’s charge.

We wish health and happiness to you during this historic time. Please stay tuned for the next blog post on Survivor’s Guilt.