Recent times have made that abundantly clear. We’ve witnessed high-stakes global challenges related to a pandemic and to long-time racial injustice. We’ve watched an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the Great Resignation, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All of it has an impact on the workplace—from stalled supply chains to plummeting employee morale and mental health issues.
Are you ready to lead your organization through a wide range of crises as well as their aftermath?
It’s a critical question to ask since professionals spend at least half of their waking hours at work, a scenario that deeply influences their well-being. A McKinsey study found that people’s relationships with leaders at work are the largest drivers of job satisfaction. How leaders respond to crisis, then, will have dramatic effects on employees, customers, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders—for better or for worse. We have to work hard to get it right since there’s so much to lose if we get it wrong.
Leadership in crisis is something I think about a lot. Having built two startups—one of them gaming platform FanDuel—I’ve seen my fair share of crises and had to learn to lead through them. I want to share with you the best practices based on my experiences, conversations, and collaborations with leaders, coaches, and experts across sectors. Think about how best to incorporate them into your leadership approach and your organization’s broader culture.
Don’t wait. In most crisis situations, it’s important to respond quickly. Yes, that means you may not have a comprehensive strategy in place yet, but it will help you get stakeholders what they need sooner while continually working toward the right “answer.” For example, as COVID-19 intensified, leaders at Next Door, the hyperlocal social networking business, immediately set up a “health map” where neighbors could ask for help. Similarly, amidst the Black Lives Matter movement, they moved quickly to remove any ostensibly racist content from their forums. When Russia invaded Ukraine, businesses integrated the Ukrainian flag’s colors into their logos or websites. Anything helps, and employees understand you can only react based on what you know at the time. Think of it this way: people see not doing something as a conscious decision not to do anything. Avoid that in all high-stakes situations.
Be there for them, and encourage expression. Another priority in times of crisis is to give employees what they need, especially a sense of human connection. Make it more about people than profit. Recognize that people will likely be distracted, and try to normalize that through explicit communication and example. Of course, all of this is easier if you start from a strong foundation and culture of trust, collaboration, and caring; that is, you already put the “deposits in the bank” beforehand. Software analytics company Pendo has a stated value of “promote life outside work,” making it easier for leaders to reach out to people who may be affected by a crisis. And they do just that, asking about the well-being of individuals and their families. Make room for employees to express themselves, whether in formal venues such as town halls, digital forums (including anonymous ones), or casual interactions such as hallway conversations. “We’re here for you” is a critical, powerful theme that should be woven throughout the organization and its culture, not just a passing message from the top.
Provide the tools and context. Many if not most of us may be uncomfortable addressing what people are going through in crisis situations, especially if we’re from a different demographic, context, or perspective. It may seem too personal. So the default becomes not asking and letting inertia win. Work against that by providing managers and other leaders the training and tools to deal with challenging issues in a way that benefits all. That might be through crisis-management-focused and other workshops and books such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. As already noted, part of this is providing an overall context where people feel comfortable voicing their ideas and opinions and going to leaders with them rather than seeking only to “get it right” or “be nice.” That sets the stage for quick, strategic, collective thinking in a crisis.
Be transparent. No one likes black boxes, especially in a crisis. Your people, customers, and other stakeholders will want to know your thinking around decisions, trade-offs, and other matters. Aim to overcommunicate about your whats, hows, and whys. A sometimes-hidden benefit of transparency is that it not only shows people where you stand but helps them see how your thinking evolves over time. It’s a way to “show your work”—in this case, mental and emotional work. If you’re the top leader, it means ensuring your team members are serving as ambassadors of communication organization-wide and coming back to you with feedback on how people are feeling and what they need.
Show your humanity. Just as you’re making room for your people to express themselves, do the same for yourself. That doesn’t mean wearing everything on your sleeve 24/7; rather, it’s about acknowledging the heaviness or grief of a situation while still serving as a stable emotional center for your organization. Ask yourself this: “What is needed from me at this moment?” Then work to provide that. Usually it’s a combination of humanity, calmness, strength, and conviction. Think of it as exemplifying a “soft heart and a strong spine” in times of crisis in order to support and inspire. It can be small things such as telling employees it’s okay if their kids or pets show up on their Zoom calls. Leaders at Slack and other organizations did this when the pandemic was raging. It could be bigger things such as admitting when you don’t have an answer to a tough situation but committing to work toward one—together.
Don’t forget self-care. Remember the cliché for an in-flight crisis—put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others with theirs. As a leader, you have to be in good condition to make decisions and support others. You can’t do that without self-care, which is something too many people forgo. Focus on your nutrition, sleep, exercise, and meditation. Part of it is having people you can talk to about emotional or challenging things—at work and beyond. Personal habits such as journaling can help you identify, process, and share your emotions in healthy ways while avoiding impulsive behavior. Recognize when you’re pushing too hard and stretching yourself too thin, and take corrective action, even if it’s just small breaks or naps. In short, don’t try to pour from an empty cup, and don’t be a martyr who works extremely hard to care for everyone but yourself.
As you think through these strategies, remember that it’s not about getting everything right every time. It’s more about committing to doing the work, being open to feedback, and creating space for others. If you can consistently practice that, you’ll learn, adapt, and help your organization come out stronger on the other side. And everyone will be more prepared for whatever is next.