Leading in uncertain times

Managers at all levels can step up to help their companies cope with coronavirus

As we prepared our Spring issue to go to press, the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 transitioned from a widely ignored respiratory illness that initially affected people in China to a rapidly spreading pandemic that crippled economies worldwide. This occurred in a matter of weeks and upended businesses across all industries.

Print and broadcast media have churned out coronavirus coverage 24/7, turning phrases such as “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” into household terms. Whether this outbreak lasts a couple months or well into the year, there will be other disruptive occurrences that require smart leadership of teams in the workplace. You may have consumed more than you ever want to know about viruses, pandemics and how to cope with them. However, a great deal of content about leading in the business world during crises has been published since the outbreak that is worth repeating. We are committing our Next section to some highlights.

Great leaders prevent crises

“If extraordinary leaders had carried the day, this pandemic wouldn’t produce any heroes. It simply never would have happened,” states Sam Walker, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership.”

Walker shares a parable he heard while writing his book that he says is well-known in public health circles. Two friends who are sitting by a river spot a child drowning in water and immediately jump in and save the child. Almost instantly, another child drifts into view. Then another. Then another. After completing several rescues, one of them climbs out of the water, leaving the other one asking, “Where are you going?”

“I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids into the water.”

Walker says he first encountered this parable while reading Dan Heath’s recently published book, “Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.” Too often, Heath states, managers attack the symptoms of problems rather than the problem itself. For example, if a company is being inundated with customer service calls, its leadership might mobilize a backup team to handle the overflow. Once these emergency response teams exist, they tend to self-perpetuate. If calming irate customers is your job, your primary motive is calming them successfully. You have no incentive to figure out how to stop them from calling.

The best strategy, Walker says, is to figure out how to incorporate crisis-control strategies into the regular daily workflow so, if the time comes to incorporate it, people will have experience using the systems that must be put into play.

“There are two occasions when most organizations assess their bosses: times of success and times of crisis. But these are exactly the wrong moments to do so. What’s really important is what the leader does during the quiet moments in between,” Walker writes. “Leaders reveal themselves through a series of small, precautionary moves. If nothing else, I hope this pandemic will help organizations appreciate the difference between leaders and managers and start learning how to identify them.”

Put your own people first

“The big message I think we’re learning is that whatever happens, the right response is people first, business second,” writes HR analyst Josh Bersin for Forbes.com. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer makes it clear that trust is based on three things: competence (doing things well), ethics (living by an ethical value system), and voice (giving people a chance to speak).

“The people in your company are the ones who will pull you out of a financial slowdown. The coronavirus represents an opportunity. If you focus on your people in a competent and ethical way, and you listen to their needs, you can drive up trust, teamwork and resilience,” Bersin says.

The economic downturn places pressure on businesses to cut costs. Bersin implores managers to do whatever they can to avoid layoffs. “Research shows that when these periods occur, companies that go through deep layoffs always underperform in the future. Many go out of business.”

In an article for Harvard Business Review on making decisions during a crisis, psychology professor Art Markman says managers would be wise to slow their decision-making down. “There are many actions people should take over the next several weeks and months, but the decision to act should be based on deliberation, sober reflection on data and discussion with experts — not in reaction to a headline or a tweet. In times of relatively slow-developing existential crises like a pandemic, it is best to take your time when making decisions rather than acting on gut feelings. Those quick actions may reduce some of your anxiety in the short-run, but they are likely to create more problems than they solve.”

Go on offense

While many play defense during a crisis, there is an opportunity to be aspirational as well, says Eric J. McNulty, co-author of “You’re It: Crisis, Change and How to Lead When It Matters Most.” “Imagine that the adversity of the situation coalesces your team to rise to its absolute best. Think about how you may all emerge from this incident stronger, more engaged and more capable than you were before. Creating such conditions calls leaders to reassure and encourage everyone throughout the enterprise that ‘we can do it’ and then supporting them both at work and at home.”

During crises with a long duration like a pandemic, leaders must show they can execute a series of pivots as the facts on the ground and their operational context shift. Like Bersin, McNulty emphasizes establishing trust — through dialogue and actions rather than proclamations and intentions.

“Decisions made and actions taken in trying times resonate far beyond the present. Forecasts about climate change, global urbanization and aging populations indicate that pandemics and other disruptive events will increase in frequency. Eventually, there may be one with a high, 1918-level morbidity rate that pushes our social and economic systems to their limit,” Bersin says. “The lessons we can learn and the practices that can be put in place now make our organizations healthier today and better prepared for future turbulence.”  

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