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Crisis Leadership: 6 actions managers should take to lead for the long run

How to effectively lead with empathy

I was on a Zoom call last week with a group of loan officers and Realtors, in which people were sharing their feelings about quarantine –– the highs and lows, tips and tricks, etc.

I have participated in many of these calls over the last few weeks, and have noticed three common archetypes of quarantine.

There are always those who say they have barely noticed quarantine. As my graphic designer jokingly put it, “I just realized my lifestyle is called quarantine.”

Kristin Messerli,
Columnist

Then there are those who optimistically describe their new healthy routines and digital communication they have adopted during this time. (I think I have a new hobby and life plan daily).

And there are others who usually don’t speak up during these calls but whose social media posts indicate large amounts of pizza, wine and toilet paper hoarding. If we’re honest, most of us find ourselves in the latter category, at least on occasion. 

Managers, however, have the very complicated task of leading their teams through this range of emotional responses to the pandemic. If they want to ensure productivity and long-term stability, managers must take a strategic approach to leadership during a time of crisis. 

In my last article, I described the psychology of consumers’ response to the pandemic and a “trauma-informed” approach to leadership. In continuation of the topic, I am writing from the perspective of leading teams, relying on best practices from crisis preparedness research and examples of many great leaders in this industry.

Empathetic leadership

In today’s emotionally charged atmosphere, managers must remember to adjust their leadership style to one with an abundance of empathy for their teams who are experiencing a pandemic. You may be fully aware of their stress, but your leadership must reflect the expectation that they will not be leaving their stress on the other side of the room when they “show up” for work. 

As one leadership scholar, Warren Bennis, explained in the 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review on preparation for a pandemic, “In a continuing crisis — a war or a pandemic — people want a great deal more.” 

At the time of his writing, video conferencing was not yet available, and he, therefore, described the kind of “social distancing” that would threaten social cohesion. Thankfully, today we are able to follow our leaders through video meetings and continue to work from our homes. Nonetheless, in the case of a digitized social world, managers may have an even greater expectation for empathetic leadership. 

Bennis continued, “They will expect their leaders to make smart decisions, yes, but they will also want leaders who have the ability to comfort and galvanize them.” Crisis leadership requires an understanding of the psychological response to crisis and consistent, transparent communication to your employees. 

How does the “quarantine grief” show up at work? 

Workers who are exposed to a highly stressful or traumatic event frequently experience symptoms that impact their ability to work. According to research on the occupational impact of trauma, workers may show symptoms of restlessness, anxiety, poor concentration, absenteeism, task avoidance, employee conflicts, and lack of motivation. If leaders ignore or evade the stress of the pandemic, their whole organization suffers. 

In contrast, when leaders offer an empathetic response to the pandemic, they often gain a kind of “cult” following. Bonds are formed in times of crisis, and employees are incredibly loyal to leaders who bring them through dark periods. As Albert Einstein said, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.”

Steps to effective crisis leadership

  1. Constantly check-in with yourself

This probably goes without saying, but self-awareness is particularly crucial during times of crisis. Be aware of your own response to the pandemic and consistently check in with your emotions. 

Everyone’s a little extra on edge, and that probably doesn’t exclude you. The dog won’t stop barking, your kids won’t stop yelling, your partner is suddenly super weird, and the world is falling apart. But “you’re cool, you’re cool.”

Take a breath before you snap at someone for not placing themselves on mute. 

  1. Gather the facts

There is a pretty insane amount of misinformation going around. Does a mask actually help? Did the government increase credit score requirements for FHA loans? Did Carole Baskin kill her husband? As far as I know, the answers are yes, no, and probably, (respectively), but there are a number of nuanced factors. 

In times of fear and uncertainty, people are struggling with a loss of control. You may not be able to tell them everything will be fine, but you can tell them the facts and help them prepare. By giving them consistent and well-researched market updates and modeling emergency preparedness rather than fear, your teams will regain a sense of empowerment. The uncertainty often has worse outcomes than knowing the facts, no matter how harsh the reality. 

  1. Don’t pretend to be a “knower”

You’ve gathered the facts, but some crucial information is missing, like how long quarantine will last or what will happen in the stock market tomorrow. But Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead and expert in vulnerability in leadership, shares that knowing everything isn’t the point, and in fact can lead to a lack of confidence from your team. She says, “Having to be the ‘knower’ or always being right is heavy armor. It’s defensiveness, it’s posturing, and, worst of all, it’s a huge driver of bullsh*t.” 


In contrast, for example, the COO of Churchill Mortgage, Matt Clarke, shared a glimpse into his own humanity on LinkedIn, describing a “mental kaleidoscope” of thoughts as the pandemic began to spread. He continued with an inspirational quote from Abraham Lincoln about continuing on their mission and closed with a message of hope. Matt didn’t need to have an answer to everything, nor would that have been appropriate. Strong leadership in crisis requires both confidence and vulnerability. 

  1. Get real with your key players 

At the risk of sounding like a millennial snowflake, your productivity during this time is, at least in part, best managed by addressing emotions. When you help your leaders address their fears and provide them with a sense of control, they are much better able to lead their teams. 

Set up regular video meetings with your direct reports to simply check in on how they are feeling, discuss their stressors and coach them on their crisis leadership efforts. In addition, delegate responsibilities when possible and request feedback and collaboration on decisions. This empowers them with a unifying message and ultimately creates very loyal team members. 

If your employees’ anxieties are severely impacting their ability to perform, you may consider running through an exercise together in which they write down all of their stressors, and create a strategy for managing those they can control and preventing as much as possible the ones they can’t.

  1. Display authentic compassion and humility

While I am not typically a fan of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he displayed some of the greatest examples of crisis leadership following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. One of the key components to his leadership approach was the constant public presence and open expression of compassion he shared with his community. He gave a sense to the public that “we’re in this together” by showing up to funerals, sharing an authentic expression of grief for others, and simultaneously expressing confidence that the city would be resilient. 

Whether or not you are suffering or fearful, there are many others who are suffering within your community and company. Instead of pretending to know what tomorrow may bring or leading with overconfidence, practice humility and authenticity. 

For example, Anthony Hshieh, CEO of LoanDepot, shared several social media posts in which he acknowledged that while their company was successfully “making it through,” there are many in the industry struggling and that “we need to stick together.” This call for unity is exactly what people need to hear from their leaders.

  1. Provide consistent communication

Deliver consistent messages across all mediums. It doesn’t need to be the same for every audience, but it should be consistent and delivered with confidence and transparency. 

One of my favorite leadership examples I have witnessed thus far has been from Rob Clennan, president of Mortgage Solutions Financial, who communicates consistent updates across a variety of platforms to his employees. He checks in regularly with his regional managers, sends frequent company-wide emails and video updates, and often drops in on local Zoom calls to share updates with their loan officers and referral partners, which is where I first heard his message. 

One senior vice president of the company enthusiastically described his updates. “He gives straight answers and speaks with such passion and transparency. You can’t help but be willing to walk into fire with that guy.” 

With varying degrees of intensity, everyone is experiencing or witnessing a globally traumatic event. And leaders are uniquely positioned to shape their communities’ response with compassion and stamina for the future. Herein lies the greatest opportunity. Through careful crisis leadership, companies will become more resilient and competitive far beyond the pandemic. 

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