Crisis Leadership: Know How to Communicate?

crisis leadership matters
Learn how to lead through a crisis! Taking responsibility and monitoring anger is key for success.

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We have all been living through the COVID-19 crisis for months now. While everyone is grappling with how to cope, leaders are in the spotlight now, more than ever. But, leaders may also feel unprepared to handle these complexities. As plans for returning to work unfold, leaders will likely make some mistakes in how they handle the crisis. Communication is extremely important for leaders any time, but leaders’ messages are especially important during times when tensions and expectations are high. How can you properly communicate through crisis? Read our tips below.

Crisis Leadership is Different Than Crisis Management

It’s important to recognize that just responding to a crisis isn’t the same as leading through a crisis. Leaders who have a defensive or neutral response, even if they are completing tasks that are helping the organization to cope, may not be as effective. Leading through a crisis requires some competencies that are different than what is required to just respond to it. In other words, leaders need to do things differently if they actually want to shepherd people through a hard time.

In a crisis, employees face a lot of psychological challenges. They may feel that their assumptions about the world are unstable. Additionally, they may face emotional and behavioral shifts that make it hard to perform at the same level, or at all. Importantly, they may also feel that their social networks are ruptured. For example, during COVID-19, employees may feel unsure of how to move forward in a world where their safety is at heightened risk. Further, they may feel sad or angry about the implications of the crisis on their lives. That might cause them to need more sleep or downtime. Finally, being isolated from others can cause loneliness and depression. Because of these challenges, leaders can’t just complete tasks when coping with crisis. They have to show employees that they understand how they feel and are here to guide them to a better tomorrow.

Crisis leadership is different than regular leadership
Leading through a crisis requires a different set of skills compared to ordinary leadership.

Leader Responsibility Matters

There are many types of crises. There are some that are caused by the organization (e.g., a product recall) and some that are not caused by the organization (e.g., COVID-19). However, even in crises that were not caused by the organization, leaders can handle their responses differently. When leaders put plans in place, they don’t always unfold as expected. When plans have negative implications for employees, even unintended, the leaders response is important. One of the most important things leaders can do in these situations is to take responsibility for what has gone wrong.

For example, perhaps it is necessary for your company to lay people off because of COVID-19. While the organization didn’t cause the COVID-19 crisis, employees might look to similar companies and see that they are not laying people off. This might cause anger or upset from employees as they see their colleagues leave the organization. It’s important to own your plan and to explain the decisions that you have made. If you try to point fingers at others, or at the situation at large, employees might react negatively. So, the first step in leading through crisis is to communicate clearly, but also to take full responsibility for your decisions. Employees will know you’re responsible whether you say so or not – taking responsibility shows you are willing to be fully honest and transparent, even when it’s tough.

Crisis leadership requires responsibility
If you’re leading through a crisis, don’t point the finger at someone else. While you might not have caused the crisis, you should own your response.

Leader Emotions Matter in a Crisis

We know that leaders can have an impact on the emotions that their employees experience on a regular basis. However, the emotions that leaders display are also important at work. During a crisis, leaders and employees might be experiencing heightened emotions. So, managing leader emotions might be even more crucial during crisis. If you’re a leader, and you take responsibility for your plans, you are able to display a broader range of emotions. Employees are more understanding if a leader is angry or sad about a crisis, since it’s clearer that they are doing their best to own their plan. So, if you have been taking responsibility for your actions, you can express anger about COVID-19, or sadness about COVID-19. Employees will still evaluate you similarly as a leader.

But, when leaders don’t take responsibility for their plans, they are not given as much wiggle room. Leaders who fail to take responsibility for their plans during crisis, but then express anger about the crisis, are not evaluated as highly. If you also express sadness, or just express sadness alone, your evaluations remain the same. In other words, if employees don’t think you are trying to solve the problem authentically, your anger will only irritate them. If you’re so angry, maybe you should take ownership over your own plan first! If you’re sad, though, employees seem more understanding. You may not be viewed as positively as you would be if you took responsibility, but you are still allowed to be sad about the crisis, even if you aren’t owning your role.

Are you leading through this crisis? Try to take responsibility for what you’re doing to address the crisis. Don’t get defensive or stay silent about potential missteps. If you’re feeling angry, but haven’t taken responsibility, you might want to rethink your approach. If you have taken responsibility, it’s ok to show that you’re angry, sad, or both. Share your tips for leading through crisis below!

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