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5 Ways to Be a Better Leader During a Crisis

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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 things are going well, but your abilities as a leader are only really put to the test when there’s a real crisis.

While crisis management may be at the top of a manager’s list of priorities, it is one of the trickiest areas to navigate. Unsurprisingly, crisis preparedness can cost a business anywhere from $60,000 to $500,000 (depending on industry and location). By comparison, unprepared companies in crisis can spend nearly millions of dollars on mitigation, while simultaneously losing hundreds of millions in reputation and shareholder value.

The real problem with crisis management is that it is incredibly unpredictable. You never know when or what kind of crisis will strike. Think of 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 huge hoax.

In the meantime, a Spiceworks survey found that while 95% of organizations have a crisis recovery plan, 23% never test the effectiveness of that plan. And of those who don’t test their plans, 61% say it’s due to time constraints, while 53% say it’s due to insufficient resources.

So it’s safe to say that most leaders are not only mentally unprepared to deal with a sudden crisis, but they’re also unsure how to manage their workforce in a high-risk situation.

How do you become a successful crisis leader?

Depending on the stage of a crisis, a leader is expected to fulfill different roles. For example, in the early stages of the crisis, when its nature is ambiguous, you are expected to be a problem solver and have different ideas about what can be done. In the later stages, when the facts and figures become much clearer, you are 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 helps your team resolve a crisis without them ultimately despising you? To put things in perspective, here are a few tips on how to be a better leader in times of crisis:

1. Acknowledge the problem

Leaders sometimes refuse to acknowledge that they are in crisis, fail to inform their people about the reality of the situation, 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 in the dark, and that includes your employees.

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 informed about changes in policies and goals. Nearly the same number (74%) said “consistent” messages from senior management are important to them, despite the fact that they are few.

Treat your employees with respect and communicate the reality of the situation in a transparent way. However, you should know that transparency does not equate to negativity. Even if you have bad news to bring, don’t fixate on it. Inspire your team to look at the bigger picture rather than what’s going to happen in the short term. Sit down with your team and discuss next steps, the risks of the action plan (if applicable), 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 can feel tense because they are expected to follow directions. In normal circumstances, letting people do exactly what you want them to seem ideal, but in times of crisis, such passive workers are often the ones who suffer the most. They expect you, their leader, to do all the thinking for them, and as a result, they are an obligation rather than an asset in a situation.

Resolute leadership is the most important thing you can do to manage a crisis. And to lead decisively in a crisis, you must establish a frontline of decision-makers who can help you accelerate, implement and communicate the plan to the rest of the internal teams.

That is why, as a leader and as 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. In the event of a crisis, keep in mind:

  • Having a vision helps your people stay grounded and focus on what’s important.
  • A specialized role allows employees to be more autonomous and actively contribute to solutions, ideas and expertise.
  • A sense of ownership inspires pride at work, which can be crucial for employees to stay motivated during the different phases of the crisis.

Empower these decision-makers to take the initiative where possible and clearly define what needs to be escalated, when and to whom. Your default should be to make bottom-up rather than top-down decisions.

3. Cut red tape and reduce friction points

During a crisis there is no time or space for extensive consultation. One of a leader’s top priorities during a crisis should be to limit the number of friction points. A point of friction can be anything that stands in the way of making quick decisions — from an unnecessary hierarchy in the approval process to a lack of emergency funding.

Building on the previous point of encouraging self-leadership, leaders can reduce bureaucracy by selecting a small group of team leaders to accelerate decision-making. As a leader, you don’t really have the luxury of doubting yourself, so when it comes to managing a crisis effectively, it all boils down to:

  • Drawing up a no-nonsense priority list. You don’t want your employees to waste their time and energy on the wrong things. Document your priorities early in the crisis, get your entire team aligned, and leave some breathing room to make any changes to the plan as you go along.
  • Give full autonomy to your frontline decision makers. While it is likely that many mistakes will be made, they are an inevitable part of this process.
  • Prioritize the decisions with the least impact first. Frankly, it’s all too common for you to make the wrong decision, especially when you’re under extreme pressure. That’s why it’s a good idea to tackle those decisions that don’t have a lot of impact first, and only then move on to decisions with a higher impact. This ensures that your employees have a realistic understanding of what is at stake, while also instilling confidence in themselves.

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4. Don’t throw away your empathy along the way

Perhaps your employees need you now more than ever. In times of crisis, taking care of your people is one of the most important things you can do.

Crisis leadership involves not only empathy for those affected, but also the ability to pinpoint the root of problems by asking the right questions at the right time of the right people. Empathy is the equivalent of telling your employees, “I care about your satisfaction and well-being,” but making sure people don’t see it as a weakness on your part.

Employees are more involved in companies when they feel more than just a cog in the machine. Empathy allows you to respond to your team’s needs with openness, rather than mistrust. It’s all about finding a balance between compassion and reality.

But the real challenge is how to be empathetic and make sure the team goals are still being achieved. Here are a few tips that will help you balance your empathic side with your managerial side:

  • Build a strong recognition culture. Meaningful recognition, no matter how tiny, can have an incredible impact on employee morale. Especially in times of crisis, even the small act of a sincere “thank you” can give your employees the boost they were missing.
  • Perform 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 the highs and lows of their week. Make sure these conversations cover both the personal and professional aspects of your employees’ lives so that you can get a complete picture of their mental health. Make sure you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or mental health plan in place to help employees who may need assistance.
  • Start advocating for realistic goals and productivity standards. Dealing with a crisis not only hinders your well-being, but also that of your employees. It is common to go through burnout, stress and anxiety in such situations. As a leader, your job is to create a positive and uplifting atmosphere where employees feel like they don’t have to burn out to get anywhere. You can start a goal setting process using the SMART Goals Framework to help your team understand which goals are actually achievable.

5. Provide a robust and adaptive communication strategy

A full-fledged crisis response requires significant support and participation from multiple internal teams within the organization. As a result, any plan you eventually implement will almost certainly be comprehensive, layered, and integrated across the organization.

However, for such a comprehensive plan to be effective, your internal teams must be aware of what, when and how they are expected to execute their respective parts. And that is only possible if you have a sound communication plan to deal with such risky situations.

This is where having an adaptive communication toolbox can help leaders cut through the noise and help the team collaborate effectively at all stages of the crisis. In addition to a clear communication strategy, it also helps if you and your team have followed communication training beforehand. While this tip may seem obvious, anyone who has gone through an organizational crisis understands how different communication in a crisis is than, say, the launch of a project.

Learning valuable skills now will prepare you for a future crisis

The leadership skills needed 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 handle situations.

Therefore, when discussing crisis management, terms such as ‘adaptive’, ‘agile’ and ‘decisive’ are often used. Unless you, as a leader, are willing to change the way you communicate, work and lead, coming out of a crisis unscathed is an almost impossible task.

About the author

Anjan Pathak is the co-founder and CTO of Vantage Circlea cloud-based employee engagement platform, and Vantage Fitan all-in-one business wellness platform.

RELATED: How to be a fierce entrepreneur in times of crisis?

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