Leading people through change or crisis

Leading people through crisis - horizontal

The Coronavirus / Covid-19 situation is stretching everyone’s ability to respond in normal ways because the change is so far outside normal routines and people’s usual ways of coping. The psychology of how people respond under intense pressure is different from how people respond to day-to-day issues. Understanding those differences and how to adapt your approach is important for anyone leading through a crisis.


The pressure to deliver results in a crisis can be intense as leader. There are three core areas you need to pay attention to when you’re leading people in a crisis. They exist in normal circumstances too, but how you approach them during a crisis needs to be a little different. The goal is keep people energised and functioning well for the duration of the crisis. All three areas of attention are important, but you’ll need to play a balancing act as well:

  • The Individuals
  • The Team
  • The Task


The Individuals

This is first here for a reason. Remember that your people are the single most important asset you have in a crisis. It is very easy to launch into tasks and actions during a crisis, start firing out directives and orders. But remind yourself that your people are still individuals. Be kind, ask them what they need, and respond to them as individuals. This investment will pay back heavily when stress, tiredness, and anxiety start to build up.


In normal circumstances you might be used to focussing on people’s individual skills, or their values, and using that to motivate performance. In a crisis it’s a bit different; adrenalin will provide the short-term motivation, you need to pay closer attention to managing unproductive (coping) behaviours. These will be a lot more visible under pressure, and can very quickly derail the task, the team, or the individuals themselves.


  • Think about how each of your people behave under PRESSURE. Imagine it being like a poker ‘tell’ for each person. You should also include yourself in that analysis.


  • If you see UNPRODUCTIVE behaviour pull the person aside(virtually), explain what you saw and the impact. Don’t build up a file of wrong-doings, just do it in the moment.


  • Don’t get angry, just OBSERVE the behaviour to the individual. Your job in a crisis is to support people to behave the best they can, not punish them for trying to cope. Click here for some useful resources on how to manage people when they’re not at their best.


Note: Hogan’s taxonomy of 9 derailing behaviours (i.e. how people react under pressure and stress) is also super useful for leading people in a crisis. Keep the list handy and use it to quickly identify and explain unproductive behaviour to individuals. This will help them be more conscious of how they’re responding too.


The Team

People will often become more inward in their focus during a crisis (i.e. hyper conscious about what’s going on for them, but missing cues from others). That increasing sense of self-focus can easily create silos and isolation (not just the physical kind), quick arguments or see relationship flare-ups within a team.


This can be frustrating as a leader, but don’t come down too hard if you observe moments where the team is not working as well as you expect. Remember they’re just trying to get through. Do accept there will be a bit of tension and frustration (all healthy). There are three things you can do to keep the team dynamic positive in a crisis though:


  • Keep reminding the team of the importance of working TOGETHER. It’s no accident we’re seeing the same messaging from governments. Clarify roles, norms, and coordination efforts so people know how to work with each other.


  • Make a more concerted effort than normal to acknowledge SUCCESS and results. People will want to know they’re getting somewhere amidst intense circumstances.


  • Encourage a bit of FUN and human connection because it gives the team a release value for the stress. There’s a good reason emergency services have a dark sense of humour!



The Task

In a crisis, people’s minds are on overdrive. They’re thinking a million things all at once. That might be big issues like “will I die?”, or “do I have a job?”, but also crazy small things like “did I remember to buy pet food?”, or “did I eat lunch?”. In a crisis people are using up all of their available cognitive power, it’s hard to switch that off, and the reality is you get less of their attention and focus. So keep the task super crisp:


  • Explain the SITUATION without pulling any punches. Don’t put ‘spin’ on it. Be positive but don’t gloss over what’s happening. People need to know they can trust and count on you to tell it how it is. As the situation evolves, so too you need to keep people informed of what the new situation is.


  • Explain (and re-explain) the immediate MISSION to the team. Keep it simple. Something that is clear and galvanising. Don’t bother trying to involve them in long term plans right now, they don’t have the brain power to deal with that at this time.


  • Be clear about EXECUTION and how you want things done. People don’t have the attention span to work everything out for themselves in a crisis. For leaders, the “telling” vs “asking” ratio should reverse in a crisis. People will be Ok with that too because they’ll then know exactly what they need to do to help.


You can find more Leadership Resources that we've put together to help you through the Covid-19 pandemic here