By Pricilla Nelson and Ed Cohen, Excerpt from Riding The Tiger: Leading Through Learning in Turbulent Times From Chapter 3, The Role of Leadership
Don’t let the news of today undo the successes of yesterday or tomorrow. —Howard Richmond, MD
During turbulent times, everything speeds up. The pressures of shifting emotions, processes, and demands increase as more and more is expected from everyone. You are simultaneously juggling the daily needs of the business, caring for the wounded, and helping pick up the pieces. Because these difficult periods are stressful, leaders must rapidly and proactively convert emotions into actions. Leaders must concurrently take care of themselves and everyone else. This takes time, patience, empathy, a willingness to shift priorities, and communication—constant communication, even “overcommunication.” The leaders who lead “out loud”— those who maintain transparency, approachability, and integrity—are the ones with whom people want to work, in good times and bad. And these are the leaders whom others seek to become.
The 12 Leadership Guidelines
The approach that works best in this situation is leading through learning—which primarily entails developing leadership guidelines. It is simple and powerful. Leverage learning to assist leaders with the complicated people and relationship dimensions of the business. Develop a set of leadership guidelines. Communicate and teach them to all leaders. Use these guidelines as the basis for coaching conversations.
Here are 12 guidelines we used as part of our leading through learning strategy. Use these guidelines as a basis for your strategy, or adapt them to your unique situation:
Understand That We Will Never Get Back to Normal
Organizations are constantly in the process of evolving to something new. An organization in crisis creates revolutionary change, resulting in radical shifts occurring much faster than most people are comfortable handling. It’s natural to want a return to the status quo. But no matter how devastating the situation, there is opportunity in a crisis. At the heart of a crisis is learning. There were things that were once considered “normal” that helped pitch your organization into turbulence. This is your opportunity to see those things for the mistakes they were and begin to build better practices.
The only constant about “normal” is that it is always changing. So instead of hoping for and trying to get back to normal, you need to move on, seek better ways to do things, and let these new ways become the new normal.
Take Care of One Another
Leaders must demonstrate emotional intelligence—transparency, empathy, patience, forgiveness, and inclusivity. They are obliged to look for ways to take care of one another. As a leader, first and foremost, explore your own feelings. Find someone with whom you can speak, someone who has an objective view and who provides you with empathic listening. At work, don’t be reticent to express your feelings, and allow others to express their feelings without judgment. Words like “hurt,” “worried,” “cheated,” “shock,” and “disbelief ” will be spoken, along with phrases like “How did this happen?” and “Am I going to lose my job?” Let them flow. There is no need to always have an answer or even a reply. This is the time to be a great listener and to exhibit empathy. Use paraphrasing to let others know you have heard them. People need to verbalize their thoughts and feelings to work through them. They want to be heard and need to feel heard. The simple act of listening rapidly reduces anxiety.
React . . . Pause . . . Respond
For safety and expediency, leaders are counted on to react. Adrenaline pushes energies to parts of the body most required to handle the turbulence. Your mind might be more alert, thinking at a rapid speed, eyes dilated so you can see better, and hearing sharpened—and all this may bring on the “normal” reaction: fight or flight. When you react in that moment, a normal response, it may or may not be right. Pause. Reflect. Then collect as much information as possible, and consider the benefits and consequences of each possible course of action before deciding on the next thing to do. The enterprise’s response is critical for leaders to consider. As a leader, you face your own turmoil while the collective enterprise also faces its own. Thus the leader must balance his or her concerns with those of the organization by recognizing this duality and separating personal responses from business responses. For example, as a leader, you must take decisive action to help the company recover and care for others (see chapter 7). Yet as an individual, you must decide how you will respond by taking into consideration all the factors at that time, including your career desires, personal needs, and family situation. No matter how you respond, it will be right for you as long as it comes from information gathering, integrity, an open heart, and seeking to understand.
Talk—Even When You Don’t Believe There Is Much to Say
I don’t know what to say. Everyone is getting information daily from the company. They can see it on the news. The statements above are just some of the excuses leaders provide when asked why they are not communicating with their teams. There is no such thing as overcommunicating, especially during times of rapid change. No one has a valid excuse for not communicating. Provide regular updates as often as necessary. When Raju’s confession set off a crisis of massive proportions, updates were held every hour. Then we shifted to updates every few hours and then to updates daily and weekly. Never cancel an update. This scares people. Even when there isn’t much to report, people appreciate being told what is known again and again. They also appreciate the opportunity to ask you questions. They feel more connected to you and the organization with regular access. What may in normal times be seen as overcommunication is good communication during turbulent times. You are communicating enough when people repeat your words to each other and to you. Consistent and continuous messaging prevents the rumor mill from gearing up and demonstrates leader’ approachability, transparency, and heartfelt concern.
Be Visible—Now Is Not the Time to Play Hide-and-Seek
I have my own stress to deal with. I have incredibly tight deadlines. I have no time to hangout and talk to people. The statements above are just a few of the excuses you will hear. It’s true that leaders are tremendously busy working to stabilize the company, have additional requirements placed on their shoulders, and are anxious themselves, but the need of the hour is still the team’s. When the leader goes into hiding, people become fearful. They question what is happening, and without the leader’s presence, they might even make up the story for him or her. This is how dangerous rumors and urban legends are born. Now is not the time to hide away at home or in your office. Closed doors make people nervous. Open the door, get up from your desk, walk around, and talk with people; let them know you care. During the Satyam scandal, a colleague sent this quotation (we tried to find out who wrote it and couldn’t): “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Listen, empathize, share advice, provide words of comfort; just be there. You may be injured; we all are. You may have a lot of work to get done; we all do. Be present, inform, comfort, and provide strength for others.
Maintain Integrity and High Moral Values
During turbulent times, leaders will have to take measures that they might not feel good about. There may be a pending layoff or a potential sale of the company, or quite possibly something even worse set to happen. Current circumstances should not influence, broaden, or distort your definition of integrity and other core values.
Continued: 6 More Leadership Guidelines for Turbulent Times
Join our upcoming HRDQ-U two-part webinar series titled “Leading Through Learning in Turbulent Times like Covid”.
Part 1: Leading Through Learning in Turbulent Times like Covid: Leveraging a Lights On Strategy on September 2, 2020 at 2pm ET/11am PT.
Part 2: Leading Through Learning in Turbulent Times like Covid: Renewing your Employee Value Proposition on September 23, 2020 at 2pm ET/11am PT.