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How to lead in times of crisis and uncertainty

As we’re watching the drama unfold around the coronavirus crisis, I’m reminded of the stress and fear that can impact teams during times of crisis and uncertainty. Not only can these times hurt team members emotionally, they affect morale, culture and productivity.

We’re seeing lots of activity across the spectrum these days. Some are running around with their heads on fire, some are burying their heads in the sand and some are flippantly ignoring the situation. The people who are going to stand out in the near future are the ones who are leading with a cool head. They’re the ones who instinctively lead during times of crisis and uncertainty.

Three of the behaviors I teach business leaders to provide SIMPLE experiences are to "Innovate to stay ahead" “Minimize barriers” and "Empathize with your customers."

This week, the owner of my favorite bakery, Muddy’s Bake Shop, showed exemplary leadership both to her team and the community in a communication she sent out regarding the coronavirus pandemic, and the communication hit on these three behaviors. While this was a communication for customers, I believe she took the same approach in leading her team.

When you read the communication here you’ll see that:

1. They've empathized with their customers in showing an understanding of customers' concerns and questions.

2. They’ve minimized barriers for older/pregnant/at-risk customers by proactively telling them to call ahead so team members (gnomies) can make arrangements on how to get treats to them so they don’t have to come inside.

3. They've made changes in their bakery seating layout, line layout and store operations and procedures to ensure a safer environment.

4. They've thought at least 3 steps ahead to create and share additional contingency plans.

5. They've proactively communicated all of this to help ease concerns.


When you’re leading a team, at some point you’re going to have to lead them through a time of crisis or uncertainty. It’s not a question of “if" - it’s a question of “when.” And when that happens, here are eight steps you can take:


1. Stay a few steps ahead

Take a look at both the current situation and where the situation is likely headed. How will the situation affect your customers? How will it affect your teams? What plans can you create to get ahead of these effects before they happen so that you can serve your customers in the best possible way. Look to Muddy’s Bake Shop above - they created and shared three additional contingency plans in case the situation increases. When you’re developing your plan, ask for input from your team. They’re in a great position to decide what’s feasible and what’s not. If they’re involved in planning the solutions, they’ll feel more in control. And when people feel in control, they have a more positive outlook on the situation.


2. Communicate

In times of uncertainty, people need as much honest, accurate information as possible. Accurate information will curb fear and team paralysis. Given the choice, you need to over-communicate instead of under-communicate. Acknowledge the situation and concerns. Tell them the plan. Tell them why that plan is being put into place. Tell them what you know. Tell them what you don’t know. Tell them the expected timeline when you will have more information for them. Tell them the expected timeline when the situation should improve. Tell, and show them, that you care about them and their needs.


3. Manage your energy

Too many leaders aren’t aware of this, but your team is normally a reflection of you. They’ll replicate your actions, your words, your behavior and your energy. If you start freaking out, they’ll start freaking out. If you remain calm, they’ll remain calm. Your energy is contagious. If you demonstrate positive energy during a crisis, then your team will do the same. And then the people they interact with will see it and those people will do the same. Now that’s influence.


4. React intentionally

Stock market volatility, hoarding months of toilet paper, miracle cures - we’re seeing a lot of irrational behavior. You don’t want to add fuel to the fire so don’t over-react. At the same time, you don't want to appear flippant, so don’t under-react. As a leader, your job isn’t to (emotionally) react to what’s happening - it’s to lead your team through what’s happening. Be intentional with how you react by focusing on the facts and getting your information from experts. This will allow you, and your team, to create the most effective plan.


5. Focus on what you can control

When things are uncertain, too many people fall into “what if” mode and spend unneeded time worrying and speculating about things they have no control over.  When you spend your time in “what if” mode you aren’t moving forward. “What if” mode usually paralyzes you and prevents you from actually doing anything. You can’t control every outcome, or things that are out of your scope. But you can control your response, attitude, behavior, words and actions. Instead of being paralyzed by “what ifs” be proactive with action. 


6. Look for opportunities

“A leader must lead. Where others see obstacles, he must see opportunities.”   - David J. Vaughan

If you’re keeping a cool head and managing your energy, then you’ll be able to see new opportunities arise. You, and your team, may find new ways to work and collaborate. You’ll find ways to be more efficient. You’ll find new needs not being met and likely a way for your team to meet those needs.You’ll find new ways to serve your customers. But these opportunities won't just jump out at you. You have to have the mindset that the opportunities are there, and you have to look for them.


7. Be visible 

In times of crisis and uncertainty, team members look to their leader as a guide, as a beacon. If they’re going to mirror your positive energy then they need to be able to see you. This is not the time to hide, or for your team members to think you’re hiding. When you’re absent from your team for too long, their fears can creep back in and grow rapidly. If your own leadership is requiring all of your time, remind them how important it is for you to manage your team’s culture and morale and that you must make time for your team too.


8. Stay engaged

Depending on how rapidly the situation changes from day-to-day (or hour-to-hour) you’ll need to stay engaged with your team. Decide if a regular formal check-in is needed or if it’s based to share things as they occur. They want to know that you’re going to be open and honest with them about all the legitimate information you’re getting. At the same time, you need to check-in with each team member individually. Hopefully, you already know all about your team members and their personalities: their hopes and fears, their tendency to react, their challenges. Listen to each one individually, pay attention to what they’re saying and empathize with them.


Leading in times of crisis and uncertainty is tough. But you need to remember that it’s just as tough (if not tougher) on your team members. Your team is looking to you to guide them through the storm, not to let them crash and burn. It’s the tough times that separate the okay leaders from the great leaders. And YOU are a great leader.

And remember, wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Make sure your team members wash their hands and don’t touch their face (or each others’ faces).


Want to learn the six key behaviors you can instill in your team to create SIMPLE experiences for your customers and your team members? Download a free copy of my SIMPLE Playbook here. It'll help you immediately turn your customer experience around and create an "Amazon experience" without having an "Amazon budget."

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