7 ways great leaders support their people through crisis

Natasha Bonnevalle
May 4th, 2020
Article by: Natasha Bonnevalle
7 ways great leaders support their people through crisis

Years ago, Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist, was asked by one of her students what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. Contrary to what one would expect, Mead didn’t talk about grinding stones, clay pots, or tools for hunting. Instead, she said that the first sign of civilization was a 15,000-year-old thighbone that had been broken and healed.

 

In the wild, a broken leg means a sure death: looking for water and food is no longer possible. The most obvious outcome is that we become meat for predators far before the bone has had a chance to regrow. 

 

A healed thighbone is evidence that someone cared for the injured person, provided them with food, and offered them physical protection. “Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts,” Mead said.

 

Fast forward to 2020, where we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. About 2.6 billion people are in complete or partial lockdown in an attempt to “flatten the curve” – an unprecedented show of solidarity for vulnerable populations and the people working on the frontlines of the crisis. 

 

The pandemic has far-reaching consequences for businesses and organizations worldwide and is placing extraordinary demands on leaders and employees. 

 

Many of our clients have shared that in response to the current situation, a majority of their leaders have employed a task-focused leadership style. During the initial weeks of the crisis, the vast majority of organizations focused on prescribing necessary short-term solutions, meeting important safety and productivity objectives, and putting new structures in place. 

ways great leaders support their people
While the lens is slowly shifting from immediate response plans to longer-term initiatives, leaders need to rebalance their attention to supporting the people they lead. #crisisleadership #leaders #resilience #purpose Click To Tweet

As we are now slowly moving into the next phase of the crisis, the importance of people-focused leadership becomes more eminent. While the lens is slowly shifting from immediate response plans to longer-term initiatives, leaders need to rebalance their attention to supporting the people they lead. 

This is by no means easy. Leaders continue to have an unrelenting list of to-dos and an endless stream of virtual meetings to attend. They need to look after their own well-being, mental health, and families too. And yet, balancing the current task-focus with a renewed people-focus will make the difference –­ not just during this critical time, but well beyond the virus outbreak. 

In keeping with societal solidarity, let this crisis not be a “survival of the fittest” in your organization, but a demonstration of a culture that is inclusive and has the well-being, engagement, and motivation of its people at its core.

This small set of leading practices can help leaders to support their people during this critical time:

1. Lead with humanity

Life as employees know it has been upended in many ways. Many are staying home balancing work and family demands, taking care of children or elderly family members in addition to long days of teleworking. They may feel frustrated, afraid, overwhelmed, and concerned about themselves and others.

More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt said: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Before addressing business problems, take time to understand how people are coping, show empathy, and support them where needed

Practical tip: Start your meeting with a one-minute check-in from each team member. Alternate between a “free flow” check-in (where people speak uninterrupted for one minute about how they are doing) and a “prompted” check-in with questions such as: “What is especially hard during this time?”, “What gives you hope?”, and “What one thing would make your day better?”

ways great leaders support their people
Before addressing business problems, take time to understand how people are coping, show empathy, and support them where needed. #creativeleadership #crisisleadership #coronavirus Click To Tweet

2. Create psychological safety

A crucial part of a leader’s role, especially in today’s tense conditions where many employees are struggling with a multitude of emotions, is to create an environment of psychological safety. 

Team members need to know that they can address both personal and professional challenges without fear of repercussions. Give your team the space to share and acknowledge these challenges and create room to openly discuss concerns and questions. In doing so, you will foster an environment where important ideas and innovation can emerge – all the better when faced with an uncertain future.

Practical tip: A key component of psychological safety is the ability for people to show vulnerability without feeling judged. As a leader, role model deep listening: when team members share perspectives on a business problem, reflect back not just the content of what they are saying, but also the underlying feelings and needs you are hearing in what they are expressing.

ways great leaders support their people
A key component of psychological safety is the ability for people to show vulnerability without feeling judged. #psychologicalsafety #vulnerability #crisisleadership Click To Tweet

3. Stay connected

Daily sources of meaning and joy generated by working together with colleagues in the same office are temporarily gone. Nourishing the vital human need for relatedness by keeping staff connected is necessary to support employees’ emotional health. 

Herein lies an opportunity for leaders to pick up an essential part of their role: to make a positive difference in their employees’ lives.

Leverage interactive technology to bring colleagues together and actively facilitate discussions that offer people an opportunity to deepen their relationships with their colleagues. Make sure no one feels disconnected or left behind.

Practical tip: At THNK, we’ve moved our monthly team drinks as well as other team-wide meetings online. We are creating opportunities where people can just “be” with each other without a business agenda. Including fun activities (an upper-body dance competition, a bring-your-wig bash) helps bring some additional moments of joy and relaxation.

ways great leaders support their people
Leverage interactive technology to bring your people together and deepen their relationships. #crisisleadership #leaders #connection #coronavirus Click To Tweet

4. Build resilience

Leading under chaotic conditions for a prolonged stretch of time is taxing and, as things stand now, it looks like the period beyond the virus outbreak will require leaders and their teams to continue giving their all.

Great leaders help their teams find ways to sustain themselves, tending to their bodies, hearts, minds, and souls. As a result, employees will stand a better chance of countering functional declines and retaining their effectiveness over the weeks and months to come. 

It is vital for leaders who are carrying so much these days to make it a priority to tend to their own well-being. For them, too, finding and using sources of support is crucial.

Practical tip: At THNK, we have developed weekly 90-minute “Islands of Sanity” interactive sessions for our alumni community, where people can connect and help each other improve their coping skills. The concept is inspired by Margaret Mead (American anthropologist), who asked: “Are you willing to use whatever power and influence you have to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere?”

ways great leaders support their people
Great leaders help their teams find ways to sustain themselves, tending to their bodies, hearts, minds, and souls. #resilience #leadership #coronavirus #crisisleadership Click To Tweet

5. Reinforce your purpose

In recent times, more and more organizations have moved purpose from the periphery of their strategy to its core. Purpose-driven leadership has become the new norm. Employees who find meaning and see the impact their work has on others are more engaged and innovative. Many prefer to work for companies with missions that resonate with them both intellectually and emotionally. 

This is not the moment to reverse this trend. Today, it is even more important to unify the organization around a common goal. Employees want to know why they should continue to show up to work amid such difficult circumstances. Be explicit about who your organization serves and why this is important, especially now. 

Practical tip: As a leader, make it a point to articulate why you do what you do. Share your story about what makes you show up every day, what gives you meaning working for your organization. Invite your team to share why they feel inspired to be a part of your organization.

ways great leaders support their people
Today, it is even more important to unify the organization around a common goal. #purpose #crisisleadership #coronavirus #leaders Click To Tweet

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Studies have shown that leaders, in particular, have a special role in reducing employee anxiety. Frequent, thoughtful, and transparent communication helps demystify uncertain situations for employees and puts their minds at ease. 

It is better for leaders to be timely and to follow the cadence of regular meetings than to wait until they have all the answers. Special care should be taken to address employees’ concerns and questions.

Finding a good balance between a tone of realism and optimism helps build belief and hope for a brighter future.

Practical tip: In your next update meeting, leave ample time for questions. Find ways to harvest your employees’ questions prior to the meeting or have them type their questions in the chat function during the meeting (some people find it easier to write than to speak in large groups, especially online).

7 ways great leaders support their people through crisis
Finding a good balance between a tone of realism and optimism helps build belief and hope for a brighter future. #coronavirus #crisisleadership #resilience #leadership Click To Tweet

7. Promote a growth mindset

New situations call for new skills and abilities. The current crisis is a unique opportunity for leaders to promote a culture in which employees are encouraged to develop. 

Forced by the stay-at-home policies, many have already adapted to a new way of working. Instilling a mindset in people that allows them to expand their capabilities – especially now – is a great way to foster an environment in which your team members are willing to develop and put their hands up for new roles and tasks.

Organizations that embrace a growth mindset make employees feel more empowered and committed. They feel much more support for collaboration and innovation, two important ingredients to live through the current crisis.

Practical tip: Set up individual “pulse check” meetings with your team members. Have them reflect on and share with you how they are learning from the crisis. Discuss together how you can create more learning experiences. Complement them on persevering when things become difficult. 

* * *
The massive scale of this outbreak and the sheer unpredictability of what will happen next makes this an ultra-challenging time for executives worldwide. Now is the moment for leaders to rise to the occasion. By embracing the practices described above, you can impact the lives of your employees in a positive way – with long-term benefits for your organization.

To learn to lead effectively through crisis and uncertainty: