Four Things Even Good Leaders Get Wrong In A Prolonged Crisis

by Mar 31, 2021Leadership

This article originally appeared in Forbes

During a crisis, it’s natural for leaders to turn to the standard “crisis playbook” for how to behave. Much of this advice is solid and thoughtful. But suppose it’s applied too literally, which can happen leaders are overtaxed, like in a crisis that doesn’t quickly resolve. Even the best leaders can grow weary of the emotional toll on people around them when danger lingers, like in a global pandemic. Over 25 years of advising boards and senior executives, I’ve seen four main ways that following conventional thinking can prove harmful during a crisis.

Myth One – Communication is the answer. During a crisis, leaders need to communicate information that’s relevant and timely. It is especially critical when fear runs high. But too much focus on content has a side effect: the leader thinks mainly about what they’re going to say and not enough about their impact. What makes a leader better able to communicate isn’t simply the information being conveyed but a connection between the leader and others. Leaders create a sense of connection by demonstrating empathy and concern, as well as providing facts.

Leaders should consider using one-to-one conversation liberally, even if they feel they can’t take the time needed. It’s vital for leaders to make connecting a priority and to contain their sense of urgency to get to the next thing. Leaders can rest assured that creating a sense of connection needn’t take hours; instead, it takes intention, attention, reflecting what they hear, and asking for confirmation that they understand. Doing so closes the loop and shows genuine interest. 

Myth Two – There is a prescription for leadership in a crisis. Many people believe that in an emergency, employees will be overwhelmed with anxiety and that leaders need to quell their fears. Actually, people react in very different ways, and sometimes behavior can be paradoxical. Uncertainty can lead some people to feel great energy to figure out new innovative ways of working. In the pandemic that began in 2020, there has been tremendous innovation and adaptability. Some people may withdraw, and some may behave in aggressive and angry ways. People can respond to a crisis in many ways that are entirely normal and adaptive, and no blueprint exists for every leader. Instead, leaders can turn to their understanding of individuals rather than a rule book. Where relationships are strong and trusting, connecting will be easier. In less strong relationships, leaders can create a stronger bond by checking in with people and listening.

Myth Three – We need to build positivity. Leaders often assume that they need to be the cheerleader-in-chief, encourage positive emotions among their teams, and quash signs of negativity. But leaders who clamp down hard when employees act upset, silence conversation about unpleasant thoughts or feelings, or simply ignore those who appear distressed, are weakening their connections to others. Conscious or not, people will get the message that it’s only ok to talk about how grateful, adaptive, and positive they are, but keep the less pleasant stuff to themselves.

One senior executive I coach began doing video calls with her colleagues every day, who continually reassured her that they were “all in” and doing “just fine.” Once she shared that her own sleep was disrupted and she had become forgetful in minor ways, others began to share. Over time, people have gradually opened up and are receiving support from peers. Some of the most valuable support has come from simply being reminded that it’s normal to feel disrupted in unusual circumstances – and you can’t do that when you promote the myth (implicitly or explicitly) that being positive is the only helpful emotion.

Myth Four – People are resistant to change. The idea that people will resist change universally is untrue. People resist change that is foisted on them has weak logic and feels unfair because it fails to connect the changes to a benefit for them (Folger and Skarlicki). Sometimes a crisis puts tremendous pressure on leaders to act, and in haste, they may quickly decide on a course of action and announce it as an edict. This approach takes away autonomy, leaves the mind to imagine what is “really going on,” and fails to engage motivation.

In the current pandemic, one senior executive I coach brought together her leadership team and asked them the following questions:

  • What must we do to respect our customers, even though we cannot do business as usual?
  • Who should we involve in these discussions?
  • How do we allow the greatest number of people to bring their talents forward?

These questions enabled her to build the logic for the case, foster a sense of community, and helped her employees connect what needs to be done now with the capabilities they are proud of. In just three weeks, the organization had reimagined its business and saw a group of people emerge as innovative, motivated people who helped their colleagues through the changes. Naturally, not everyone accepted the changes, but they were fewer in number than the leaders predicted.

In a crisis, leaders face heightened responsibility while at the same time are grappling with their own reactions. Often, given the apparent need to take action fast, leaders rely on familiar assumptions – some of which are myths that will ultimately undermine their ability to guide others. By thinking a bit deeper and avoiding these common myths, leaders are far more likely to engage and mobilize others effectively, even in a crisis.