Depending on which media you follow and whom you ask, the coronavirus COVID-19 ranges from the end of the world as we know it, to a crisis designed to sell newspapers and get clicks. Events that have such a wide spectrum of predicted outcomes (including deaths, in this case) can be particularly challenging for leaders, since this leads to a sense of uncertainty among staff.
It’s during these types of crises that our mettle as leaders will be tested far beyond the typical day-to-day challenges of managing teams and organizations. As you help guide your team through this or any similar incident, use the following tools to lead your team from the front, rather than joining the chorus of panic and chaos.
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Leadership and management are often confused. The latter is the nuts and bolts of getting a group of individuals to accomplish an objective, while the former is using influence and inspiration to motivate others. Projecting a sense of calm and using your position to influence others falls squarely in the leadership camp, and true leaders can help their teams remain focused and productive even in the face of uncertainty.
Being calm should not be confused with being passive, blissfully ignoring the events around you. Encourage your team to analyze potential outcomes of the crisis and the tools available to them to mitigate various outcomes, and encourage considered action to put those mitigation plans into place.
For example, if your office were to catch fire, you’d want someone to calmly and quickly gather everyone together and lead them out of the building, rapidly assessing potential exits to find the fastest and least dangerous route and guiding everyone forward. Someone who ran around in a panic, or conversely sat at their desk hoping for the fire department to arrive would likely fail to save the team. As a leader, you’ll be watched closely; if you acknowledge the concerns of your team, help them assess the danger and potential mitigations, then guide them to implement the most effective plans, you have a significantly better chance of coming through the crisis in good shape.
Communicate with your team
Consider how quickly gossip spreads in the workplace, especially in the absence of any official communication. I’ve seen companies in which a team of consultants walked through the door in the morning, and by lunchtime rumors were flying that they were there to sell the company and fire everyone, when in reality they were there to pitch a new product.
During a crisis, communicate promptly and factually, acknowledge what you do and do not know, and share the plan and its current state of execution. In the case of the coronavirus, it’s perfectly OK to share that your organization and its leaders are struggling to determine what impact the virus will have, as long as you couple this information with how you’re preparing to respond to likely outcomes. One of the interesting aspects of this virus is that we already have some precedent as to the outcomes and mitigation strategies, because countries like China seem to be returning to some degree of normalcy even as others in Europe, the US, and elsewhere are in the early stages of the outbreak.
An early outcome of coronavirus is that companies are requiring employees to work remotely, and some may have extended closures of factories or warehouses. Your people are smart enough to be wondering how their leaders are going to respond to these challenges, so by not directly addressing them you will allow the rumor mill to float hypotheses on your response, and they are guaranteed to be unflattering.
There are two aspects to continuity: The technical side, and that planning for life during and immediately after the crisis creates confidence in your leadership. On the technical side, it’s high time to dust off your disaster planning and business continuity manuals if you haven’t already. Perhaps most relevant are how you’ll manage to keep the business running if significant portions of your workforce are working remotely.
The good news is that even if you’re behind on remote working capabilities, cloud providers are more than happy to fill the gaps, and communications and collaboration tools can be accessed and provisioned with little more than a corporate credit card. Do have a backup plan and an alternative provider or two, as you are likely not the only company that’s enrolling in providers like Slack or GoToMeeting, and these providers may reach their capacity if large-scale quarantines are activated.
Perhaps more important than the technical aspects of ensuring your workers are connected and support plans are in place is planning how you’ll operate your business during the transition to crisis mode, and how you’ll recover and transition operations back to normal. Depending on the level of panic on your team, spending extra time on planning the return to normalcy can be very helpful, since it allows people to focus on the fact that life will continue after the crisis and ultimately return to normal.
Crises often forge leaders, or quickly expose those who are not up to the task. Even if you’re in panic mode already, consider how you’ll adapt your leadership style to calmly guide your team and come out the other side of this crisis a better leader.