How to lead during a catastrophe

May 23, 2020 4:20 PM

Leaders need to push through this situation and reinforce the nerves of employees and other stakeholders, helping them to respond to this unsettling situation

Leaders who do not prepare for every circumstance can make mistakes and affect the confidence that employees and stakeholders have in the organization.Leaders who do not prepare for every circumstance can make mistakes and affect the confidence that employees and stakeholders have in the organization.

By Bhawna Sharma Ningthoujam

With hindsight, none of us would have been too generous in using “unprecedented” loosely; we would have tucked it carefully away for the current environment. We are thrown into an unprecedented situation where we all are struggling in varying degrees. Our world is shrouded with a thick mist of anxiety, anxiety over our family and friends’ health, anxiety over the uncertainty in the job market, and anxiety about the looming bankruptcies. It is never-ending. When disaster strikes – be it a looming hurricane or pandemic – great business leaders respond first and react later. There is a thin line between the two. A response is a procedure; a reaction is a reflex.

Despite all of the uncertainty in the air, crisis management is critical. Leaders need to push through this situation and reinforce the nerves of employees and other stakeholders, helping them to respond to this unsettling situation. Leaders who do not prepare for every circumstance can make mistakes and affect the confidence that employees and stakeholders have in the organization.

Look at the response to the pandemic, for example. On the one hand, it was heartening to see so many people pitching in on relief efforts. On the other hand, several companies are compelled to let go of a fraction of their employees because of a substantial drop in revenue. Both cases highlight that staying resolute under pressure depends on connected teams with executives that lead from the front.
The old adage that ‘the captain is the last off the ship’ holds true today and in age as well. Here are a few areas to consider when leading through a catastrophe:

1) Empathy: It is a seldom celebrated trait of a leader, but that doesn’t mean it is unimportant. In fact, in the current situation, it is more important than the sought-after facets of leadership, such as vision. Today, our communication needs to be about our employees, they need to be assured. It is okay to let our emotions show. It is better to grieve along with your people than be an apathetic communicator.

2) Clear and frequent communication: You must be transparent, even if you have to communicate an agonizing decision. In a crisis situation, all stakeholders prefer listening to the voices of the leader. So be the one to communicate with them, in whichever format, and not delegate it to others, especially not in the current environment. Also, employees, customers, and other stakeholders must hear from you first. If they hear about you first from external sources, they are likely to form confusing, or worst, wrong opinions.

3) Focus on them: This catastrophic pandemic has put a lot on our plates. We seek assurance from our leaders, we want to be told that together we will find a way to bounce back. We have to focus on what is important for our customers, our employees, and the stakeholders and accordingly chalk out our communications plan for each constituency. We can’t communicate the same message to all of them because they are not a homogenous audience. For example, what is it our customers need in the current situation? Their lifestyles have turned upside down. But life hasn’t stopped; people have now gone virtual, spending more time gaming, or streaming, or reviving their once-a-dream hobby, for example, cooking. Before planning communications for them, we need to understand their lifestyle and see if there are products or services, which fit with their current lifestyle and make their lives easier or better. I mean, what is the point of tempting them with a holiday at an exotic place when they can’t step out of their societies?

Donald Winnicott, a pioneering British psychoanalyst, observed that being held well was necessary for healthy growth in children. Parents who were available but not demanding, reassuring but not intrusive, responsive but not reactive, present even if not perfect, provided a “holding environment” that made children comfortable and curious. We need a holding environment today, where our leaders don’t focus on the content they want to deliver but on what we want to hear.

The author is head of Lead PR (product and technology) at Western Digital India

Read Also: Decoded: Doordarshan’s rise to power on the back of Ramayan and Mahabharat

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