Crisis Leadership: Navigating COVID-19 Uncertainty
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Crisis Leadership: Navigating COVID-19 Uncertainty

March 31, 2020
5:28 pm

Unanticipated crises — such as natural disasters, terror attacks, and pandemics — can test leaders’ decision-making and strategic-thinking abilities. Bâton Global (B|G) recommends a 3-step approach to effective crisis leadership: (i) transparent stakeholder communication, (ii) responsive workforce management practices, and (iii) team action and empowerment.

The ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has highlighted the importance of having competent leaders who can provide organizational direction and reassurance in times of crisis.

However, a recent survey reveals that only 15% of business executives worldwide have confidence in their company's top leadership to successfully manage disruption – including events like pandemics, technological advances, shifting demographics, and climate change.  This lack of confidence is as 95% of senior executives around the world now believe managing disruption well is not only vital to the success of their company but also brings a “discernible competitive edge."

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for business leaders who can guide entire organizations in operating amidst evolving crises. Below are 3 critical steps for adapting to a crisis.

1.  Transparent stakeholder communication

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a sense of fear due to conflicting information and the unknown future it presents to individuals, communities, and businesses. As mentioned in our briefing Four Quick Wins in Facing COVID-19, we strongly recommend that leaders strive for clarity and maintain their trustworthiness to avoid creating communication deficits. We suggest three best practices to maintain leadership trustworthiness during a crisis:

  1. Provide accurate communication: It is critical that leaders communicate honestly during a crisis to maintain credibility.
  2. Avoid delaying responses to prevent misinformation: Prompt communication prevents misinformation, gossip, and rumors, which can spread fast during a crisis.
  3. Develop a coherent communication plan: Ensure your plan is not only easy to interpret but also hard to misinterpret - eliminating potentially costly risks from misunderstandings.

Providing information accurately and regularly is critical to making sure employees are not debating the facts but are instead addressing the steps needed to mitigate the crisis’s impact on the organization. Moreover, it is also critical not to downplay the situation to avoid trust issues that may arise as the situation gets worse. Remember, in times of crisis, people tend to judge the messenger first, then the message!

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to communicate effectively with internal and external stakeholders during a crisis:

2.  Responsive workforce management practices

COVID-19 has unleashed a wave of uncertainty and hardship for contractors and employees. Leaders serve as pinnacles of strength and are relied on by their teams to make fair and informed decisions in their employees' best interests.

The most successful leaders will show genuine compassion and connect to the emotions of their staff through empathy - understanding their stakeholders’ perspectives, suspending any personal judgment, and communicating their feelings as they guide their teams through a radical change.

During a crisis, employees will be wondering how it will impact them. Diffuse their main sources of anxiety through responsive workforce management practices. Such best practices typically relate to (1) immediate stabilization measures, and (2) long-term professional transitions:

  1. Immediate stabilization measures

Address how the business intends to handle the various ways the crisis will impact their personal lives. For instance, during this COVID-19 outbreak, frontline and hourly workers are either concerned that restricted movement orders may keep them from earning their livelihoods which creates anxiety that negatively impacts employee motivation and morale. Meanwhile, other workers may fear the very real possibility of increased risks of infection while on the job. This is where leaders should play a role in:

  • Establishing and communicating clear policies and guidelines on potential income replacement
  • Lay out clear and meaningful plans to keep staff safe in the workplace
  • Clarifying steps for employees to take if they get infected
  • Clarifying company action to assist affected employees and their families

JP Morgan, like many financial institutions, is considering flexible work policies. The bank has encouraged all employees to utilize virtual technology to work from home where possible. They are also offering a US$1,000 bonus to all frontline employees, including bank tellers, who may be impacted the most from COVID-19. This announcement came after the bank declared they would temporarily shut down 20% of branches globally to help reduce the spread of the virus.

  1.  Long-term professional transitions

Address how the crisis will impact the way employees will perform work if the crisis is prolonged and assist them to adapt to the new normal. For instance, leaders should begin rolling out new digital collaboration tools and provide devices their teams may need to work remotely (e.g., Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc.).

Leaders should also set clear expectations about employee availability online, what deliverables each team member is responsible for completing, and how performance expectations may change reflecting sensitivity to other crisis factors e.g., parents who now must also serve unexpectedly as. There will also be a need for practices which balance data security measures and the ability to work at home, as employees handle confidential company information in their personal spaces.

3.  Team action and empowerment

During a crisis, leaders often need to take decisive action to deal with a rapidly evolving situation. A crisis typically impacts multiple areas and fronts of the business simultaneously and important subject-matter experts are distributed throughout corporate hierarchies. As such, fluid crisis situations warrant dynamic engagement and information flow among all levels of the organization.

Even during a crisis, there are many different styles that leaders can choose to adopt – ranging from command-and-control to mutually-adapting-teams. We would underline here that the decision about which style to employ depends critically on the existing culture and capabilities of the organization.  A command-and-control style ensures that all employees are aligned, but the firm may be less agile and the feedback loop may be hampered. Alternatively, a decentralized crisis management structure based on mutually-adapting teams can often make decisions and test solutions quickly.

Mission critical during a crisis is the ability to effectively synthesize information continuously to evaluate if crisis management plans are still effective. Regardless of leadership style, when new information makes original plans obsolete, the organization must not dwell on mistakes made. Instead, it must adapt its strategy to the new situation as quickly as possible. Leaders need to assess their organization’s culture and leverage existing, successful processes to address risks throughout the crisis.

Conclusion

In the weeks to come, every organization will need to take critical steps to mitigate the disruption posed by the COVID-19 crisis. An organization’s leadership must act calmly throughout the crisis to instill confidence and a sense of normalcy in the workforce. Rushing decisions without a well-thought-out strategy will only lead to mistakes in the long run. We hope that B|G's special COVID-19 strategy resources can help lift the well-being and morale of your organization's workforce.

B|G stands by leaders who are facing tough challenges in ensuring the continuity of their operations and the well-being of their workforces. Our executive coaching, leadership development, and cultural assessment services, offered in partnership with Work & People Analytics (WPA), are available on short notice and can help your leaders rapidly adapt and perform amidst in this dynamic market environment.

References

1. Scrope, K., Braithwaite, M., & Potter, S. (2020, March 12). Companies face a crisis of confidence in their business leaders. Retrieved from https://www.odgersberndtson.com/en-us/insights/companies-face-a-crisis-of-confidence-in-their-business-leaders 

2. HBR Analytics Services. (2020). The state of leadership: Is disruption creating a crisis of confidence? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/resources/pdfs/comm/odgers%20berndtson/TheStateofLeadership.pdf

3. Sahadi, J. (2019, April 4). Handing a crisis is always hard. Here’s how companies can do better. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/04/success/crisis-management/index.html

 4. Shekshnia, S. (2018, May 28). The best CEOs are ready for crises. Retrieved from https://knowledge.insead.edu/leadership-organisations/the-best-ceos-are-ready-for-crises-9241

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March 31, 2020
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