Applying science beyond the lab
How to Lead a Business Through Crisis and the Pitfalls You’re Likely to Face
COVID-19 response strategy could dictate a business’s future for years.
Speculation has already percolated. Could a business’s reaction to COVID-19 determine the quality of future employees it attracts?
At the very least, a poor response constitutes a serious liability, so what can you do? Following these three steps may ease the task: understand your mind, use it well, and communicate in such a way the former action becomes self-evident to employees.
The Biased Mind
Don’t fall victim to the bias — the normalcy bias — that leads us to underestimate the seriousness of disruption. Denial poses the greatest threat to the smallest business and the largest country alike. Do not deny a threat, ever.
Let go of the idea that the top-down model will work in extraordinary circumstances. It won’t. Fight or flight response grips our minds, and what seemed like a marvelous idea at the time may seem like madness when the dust settles.
You need rapid problem-solving. You need experts, and you need them from many fields. Shell out for consulting if you cannot afford a think-tank. Just don’t make the mistake of believing you can do it all. You can’t. You won’t, and it will be ugly. Let’s skip that step.
The wisest leaders recognize what they do not know.
Research on business crisis management suggests it’s wise to consult experts in the following areas, at the minimum:
- workforce protection
- supply chain stabilization
- customer engagement
- financial stress testing
→ More on the “this here.”
Know what you don’t know.
The surge in demands may require more help. Apart from the experts you should consult, consider “deputizing” or empowering key employees with decision-making powers. Either of these would be ideal dispositions:
Deliberate Calm [a humble but not helpless individual able to compartmentalize or detach from the situation; this person is competent but not cocky]
Bounded Optimism [evidence-based attitude — optimism for the sake of itself will cause subordinates to lose faith, so be optimistic when it’s rooted in data or people will learn that your outlook is untrustworthy]
The unknown scares your employees. They wonder if their family’s future is at stake. You must address this and act as one who appreciates the responsibility you are shouldering.
If you show them recklessness regarding their futures, you may lose them. Dutiful employees, human capital, are the genuine asset. Let them know that you understand the gravity of this situation and that you are acting with caution and logic.
To help your employees understand this, you need to get through to them. They can’t just hear; they need to understand it and believe it. Design your delivery to meet your audience.
You need to settle on a message for your workforce. People don’t read employee manuals during normal circumstances and they will not start now. Choose wisely how you want to spend your words.
Transparency is the only way to combat uncertainty. Uncertainty, even more than actual negative experience, makes a situation worse. If people know what's coming, they struggle less than if they aren’t sure what will happen.
Uncertainty leaves them stressed, anxious, and inefficient. They won’t thank you for leaving them in that state. Be candid. Tell them what you know and what you don’t know. Taking a condescending, need-to-know approach to communicating with your workforce doesn’t work, and it won’t now.
If the constant White House Task Force meetings baffle you, they shouldn’t. We know in a crisis you need to beat everyone else to the punch. The message shouldn’t change and you don't have to worry if you’re honest. The truth is great that way. Crafting a concise message can be hard.
Risk communication is not the same as normal communication and your approach must reflect that. Organize your thoughts and prioritize your ideas. What can wait until a less critical time?
We’re all learning as we go. At least weekly, check in with your employees. Give them permission to vent frustrations. If you have a larger business, consider an anonymous survey, and discuss the feedback — good or bad — in a meeting where people can offer suggestions.
Maybe you can’t do anything about the situation, but being heard is often more important than the response. Hear them.
Gauge how they’re feeling and what is and is not working. See if they have noticed potential stumbling blocks that you’ve missed. Most of all, be there for them.
Note: I am not a business scholar; however, the recommendations made in this article reflect leadership and crisis management research from public health, business, and political science.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this letter reflect only me and are not affiliated with any other persons or institution