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Leading Teams During Crisis

written byErickson Coaching Internationalon 05/05/2020

Leading teams in times of crisis requires a great deal of bravery, summoned to a defining moment. Unfortunately, courage isn't invoked in an instant. Courage and effective leadership are the natural results of preparation and daily effort on part of any leader. According to McKinsey & Company," in novel, landscape-scale crises, character is of the utmost importance."

There are practical tips that will support leaders to be most effective in guiding their teams and colleagues successfully through a crisis.

We invite you to learn more about developing a culture of trust and empowerment in your organization. At Erickson, we have spent the last 40 years giving leaders the tools to become competent and their best, especially in times like these.

Be prepared

A crisis is a major disruption of expected events. Through some circumstances (like a global pandemic), leaders must take swift and decisive action to counter unforeseen forces. It seems odd to advise someone to "prepare for a crisis" because the essence of crisis is its magnitude and unpredictability. The dusty binder of emergency plans might turn out to be irrelevant in such extraordinary times if the crisis is of a new type. However, some time-tested methods are still effective for crisis preparation.

  • Start now. There's not a moment to lose when preparing for the unknown, because it requires broad planning. Leaders should develop detailed contingency plans and designate reliable, qualified people to carry them out.
  • Write it down. Words are more weighty when they're finalized in writing. A clearly written mission statement is a navigational beacon during a crisis. It lends a common focus and provides a sense of calm and direction amid the unknown. Leaders must ensure that the crisis plans they develop are clearly written and easy to follow.
  • Practice, practice, practice. There's a reason emergency evacuation drills occur on a regular basis. Attempting to put things into practice only when an actual crisis arises is difficult. A key component of leadership making sure people understand that there is a plan, understand what the plan is, and know how to physically carry it out in a low-stakes environment. When everything is changing, people will turn to what is most ingrained. One of the greatest things to see when a crisis happens is culture strengthening.

Consider needs

It's vital for an effective leader to be empathetic, but also decisive. Brand strategist Winnie Hart shares, "Remember: Empathy isn't about what you want - it's about what the other person needs." This is where leaders can leverage their Emotional Intelligence and coach their teams by exercising active listening. Both these skills can be developed with time tested coaching exercises and tools.

Generally, a crisis is time-sensitive. Decisions for the overall well-being of a group must be made quickly. A truly dedicated leader makes these decisions with a clear understanding of clients, stakeholders, and employee needs.

Retain integrity in communication

During a crisis, a leader's character is on display. Remember, the way issues are handled in a crisis will resonate with people. As stated by CFO.com's leadership blog points out, people look to a leader for answers, and sometimes saying you don't know but you have a plan for immediate action is the most authentic answer.

Maintaining a level head, a realistic and honest outlook, and a clear vision for what's next is fundamental. Even if it only addresses the next 24 hours, honest and clear communication is a key component of building lasting trust and credibility.

Earn trust

Leadership goes first. In times of crisis, confidence, diligence, and direction come from above. Effective leaders show employees what to do, where their strengths are, and what they can trust in.

Unfortunately, crisis preparation isn't a step-by-step process or a specific action. Even with good planning methods and strategies, it's impossible to be entirely prepared for a true crisis. Being prepared simply means calmly navigating uncharted territory and adapting to uncontrolled variables. These are fundamental components of true leadership, and they rely heavily on trust.

Developing trust with others is a central part of being a great coach. In times of crisis, leaders in low-trust environments find themselves with dependent, doubting, and frightened clients, employees, and stakeholders. 

Leaders equipped with coaching competencies to lead their teams are more adept at generating high-trust relationships, where team members become self-reliant,solution-focused, and adopt a culture of cohesion rather than disparity.

People who believe in their leaders may feel empowered to sacrifice for the cause, dedicate themselves to solutions, trust in their leaders' decisions, and be confident in themselves. Adaptive and necessary change can then happen quickly and cohesively.