How To Lead Empathetically During a Crisis?

Anyone can lead when the plan is working. The best lead when the plan falls apart.
– Robin Sharma

On any given day, organisations can run on autopilot. Of course, this doesn’t refer to a flat organisational structure where everyone is equal. Leaders at different levels will still need to lead their respective teams. But, a leader’s true mettle is tested best during times of crisis. A leaders only gets to join the ‘above and beyond’ club after battling a few unforeseen crises and challenges.

This blog is not about leadership development. It is not even about leadership. Rather, the limited scope of this blog is to discuss what a leader must do when an unexpected storm hits the team. The pandemic is on everyone’s lips now, but it is not the first or the first, or the only, crisis that leaders across organisations have faced. And nor, will it be the last.

The three quick pointers explained in this short blog will certainly be useful this year. And, they can also be part of a playbook later for any of the leadership challenges that you are bound to face even after the pandemic is over.

1. See, and Be Seen

The worst thing that can happen to a team during a crisis is the leader doing a disappearing act. Some leaders feel that employees might feel burdened with people looking over their shoulders while dealing with a workplace crisis. And, they would be right. But a leader needs to keep a close watch, nonetheless. This can help you identify the team members who might need your intervention. Also, it is important that you communicate your round the clock availability to your team. They should feel comfortable enough to reach out whenever they need you.

To further understand the art of communicating with your team effectively, here’s an insightful article by the Harvard Business Review. Another critical aspect of the leader ‘being seen’ is the leader’s public communication. When done effectively, this not only reassures the world at large, but also gives a boost of confidence to the employees as well.

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2. Being compassionate doesn’t hurt

”Compassion is empathy in action”

A common behavioural trait expected of leadership development folks is zero tolerance for mistakes. And it might even prove useful in normal times. But, often times, during a crisis, it can do more harm than good. Think of a cab driver who misjudges an angle and brushes his car against an electric pole –

If this happens during a regular trip, all that he needs to do is correct his steering wheel and straighten the course of the car.

Now imagine this happening in a crowded city street on a day when you have given him twenty minutes to get you to the airport. In a corporate environment, this would be a crisis, right? Both his and your nerves would be fraught with tension.

As soon as he hears the sound of metal on metal, and your cry of warning, he gives a violent jerk on his steering wheel. The car careens towards the other side of the road and almost hits an oncoming vehicle, and you yell again in fear. To avoid a collision, he gives another sharp turn of the wheel.. you get the picture, right? One thing will lead to another do nothing for his self-confidence.

A much better strategy would be to assure him that mistakes happen only when someone is trying. Tell him you are okay with him committing an error, and he should do the job right the next time. Encourage him to learn from this error and move on.

3. Delegate and network effectively

Most organisations have a command and control structure with clear circles of influence. Everyone knows their place in the hierarchy and owns up their responsibilities, accordingly. This works fine when things are going in a routine manner. But this becomes a serious leadership challenge when the organisation is facing an adverse situation. Mckinsey and Co. published a blog in 2020 about leadership challenges during the pandemic. Any leader could replicate the recommendations of the article at other times as well.

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The article explained that a top-down approach for decision making, based on a bottom-up approach for information gathering can be highly effective. But during a crisis, the volume and velocity of changes to the ground situation are too high for a regular hierarchy to handle. Thus, the senior leadership should not even consider taking all the pressure on themselves. Instead, it is better to place a different structure in place. Let us try to understand this alternate leadership development process, a little better.

The article suggest that aside from the senior executive team, two more teams should be set up. The first is the response leadership team that acts as the control centre for coordinating the different teams on the ground. This team would also act as a bridge to the senior executive team. The second team would consist of smaller decentralized sub-teams. They would be responsible for handling smaller bits of the crisis, like external and internal communications, technology, supply chain, company assets, employee support, outreach, and others.

Apart from a more efficient response, deploying such a decentralised network could also help the organisation efficiently employ its leadership development plan. The younger team members entrusted with handling some of these ad hoc teams would effectively be ready to take on greater responsibilities down the line.

Final thoughts

An organisation’s leadership development skills are truly tested during difficult times. You may continue with your routine leadership development strategies during the course of a regular year but the pandemic calls for a more proactive and decentralised approach. You can explore more such opinion pieces on leadership in the blogs section of our website for a wealth of literature on the subject. We hope our strategies will come in handy in helping you sail smoothly through these troubled waters.

For more leadership strategies that you can implement during the pandemic, speak to our team for a custom program.

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