Leading teams in a time of crisis

There is no avoiding the fact that our planet is currently navigating challenging times. And for many, this is already a time of crisis. Just that word alone can cause fear, and fear can trigger all sorts of behaviour.

So how do managers and leaders best support their teams at this time? How do individuals show self-leadership and support those around them? Especially if you work in healthcare, these are top priority considerations at the moment.

There are lots of books and articles on crisis leadership. Although many will have little time for reading, if you have the headspace and the capacity, reading and discussing these topics will help grow your knowledge and skills.

If you don’t have much time for reading, here are a few considerations.

Understand that emotions are involved. And they too are contagious.

This might sound like stating the obvious, yet let’s look a little closer at this, because it’s important. Each human brain is designed to keep its person ‘safe’. It does this by scanning the environment constantly for things that could hurt or help its person. If something is detected that could hurt, then our brain networks involved with emotions get to work. Remember Fear, Disgust, Sadness and Anger in that gorgeous movie? Each of these may come into play in a crisis.

From emotions such as fear, a cascade of physiological and physical responses are triggered and – what you might know as fight, flight or freeze. This is great in immediate life-threatening situations, because our body often responds faster than we can think about what to do – take the impulse to run from a fire, for example. Now the brain also detects threats that might not be immediately life-threatening and yet it will often still trigger that fight, flight or freeze response before we have time to think through the situation. Threats are everywhere for the brain – change is a threat, other people unknown to us might be considered a threat, uncertainty is a threat, being told what to do might be a threat. And a threat may trigger fear,

At this time when there are mixed messages, imposed restrictions, conflicting data, changing requirements, and uncertainties about so many daily activities, these things in themselves are enough to trigger emotions that trigger strong responses to perceived or real threats.

Fear is what drives many of the unusual behaviours that we might be exhibiting ourselves, or seeing in others. Buying more toilet paper than you would use in a year, as an example! Then we may also experience anger – at politicians, at each other…fighting over toilet paper is an example!

And ever noticed how contagious emotions are? One person’s fear or anger drives more fear and anger in those around them.

Now understanding the emotions does not mean that we need to condone bad, hurtful or dangerous behaviour. If we understand it though, we can better deal with it – whether that is to rethink our our responses, to reduce our judgement and blame of others, to show empathy, or to redirect challenging behaviour into more productive ones.

As leaders, it’s important for us to recognise when our own emotions are rising in unhelpful ways. And redirect our focus onto productive, solutions-focussed thought. Or take time out. Because if we become paralysed or panicked by fear, there’s a high probability that our teams will too. And then we are not going to be able to cope so well in a crisis. Calm leadership is needed.

Logic is a great treatment for emotional hijack.

When emotions rise and become unhelpful, it means that our logical, problem-solving, decision-making brain networks are not as active. That’s because so much energy is being used to respond to the emotion. So to get our own brains thinking with more clarity to handle a crisis, we do need to get our logical brains back in charge.

Some ways to do this include:

  • Ask a question. For example: What is our objective here? 
  • Focus on finding the required facts/evidence you need to make a decision.
  • Change your brain narrative. For example: from “This is a disaster!” to “We have options and just need to find the best one for now.”
  • Look for options. Helping your team come up with options is a great way to get everyone focused and thinking more clearly. It often also allows for innovation.
  • Understand the problem then focus on solutions. Know what the issue is without spinning on the emotions of it being a problem – move from understanding the situation to finding a solution.
  • Take a deep breath. A deep breath helps send more oxygen to your brain and reduces tension.
  • Make a plan. Planning helps the logical networks fire up. It also helps reduce emotion, because it creates a sense of being in control and having some degree of certainty. Even if the plan includes finding out more information where gaps in knowledge exist.

Create space and time to make decisions – even if 5 seconds!

It is not always easy in a time of crisis to find space to think. Especially if you are in a situation of emergency. Yet even a few seconds can help – enough time to take a deep breath. During the 9/11 crisis, George Bush was criticised by some for continuing to stay and listen in the classroom he was visiting when told about the unfolding events. There are, though other ways of looking at this – firstly he did not cause panic in a room full of children, and importantly he create a small amount of time to gather his thoughts. Many experts have said it was a smart thing to do at that moment.

If your teams members are nervous and fearful and start throwing anxious questions your way, take a breath. Ask them to explain the situation further, take notes if possible, ask them if they have an option to resolve the problem, explain that you might need a minute or two to think it through. These are some examples of creating space and time.

Communication rules supreme.

Being able to communicate effectively is an essential skill for times of crisis. If this is not something you feel confident with, that’s ok. It is a skill that can be developed with training and practice. If you find yourself in the midst of a crisis and feeling like you are not ready, then it still is ok. Just do the best you can, using some of these techniques:

  • Focus on making your messages as simple as possible. When people are fearful, overwhelmed or angry, they are not able to listen very well. So the message has to be super simple without causing more overwhelm. Breaking down messages into different parts sometimes helps. Keep it simple.
  • Repeat important messages often.
  • Use different communications methods to cater to different preferences. For example – talking, emailing, visual reinforcement, flow charts. Use various methods to explain and reinforce.
  • Use calm phrases to reassure. For example: “We are working on finding out more…”
  • Be honest if you don’t have an answer. Or if something is concerning.

There are so many things we need to consider when we lead during times of crisis. These elements above are only a few of the considerations, yet they are the ones that will help get you started.

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