In her book Leadership in Turbulent Times, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicles the stories of four great US presidents. She explores questions such as, how does adversity affect the growth of leadership? And how, at moments of great challenge, are leaders able to summon their talents to improve the lives of others?
As leaders around the world deal with the COVID-19 crisis, Goodwin’s work is a valuable reminder that, in times of heightened anxiety and stress, we must change the way we lead.
Governments, institutions and businesses alike are scrambling to cope with a highly uncertain and rapidly evolving landscape. Approaches have varied, as have the results. The most effective leaders are either instinctively or intentionally tapping into the principles of crisis management that we have learned from behavioral science and years of working with organizations in transition.
Change, especially during crises, disrupts people’s expectations of the future, reducing their sense of control and their ability to process information. In times of high anxiety and stress, the part of the brain that deals with emotions, the amygdala, hijacks the cognitive system that analyzes and interprets behavior, resulting in panic and a protective state of mind. This “fight, flight or freeze” response dates back to prehistoric times, when human beings constantly needed to be on the lookout for danger in order to survive.
Left unchecked, this instinct can have a severe impact on job performance in times of crisis, compromising safety, quality and productivity. And it can lead to dysfunction as well, triggering issues like absenteeism, attrition and even violence.
Those leading the community response to the coronavirus crisis must help their people move through this predictable reaction. The right engagement tactics can do wonders to shorten the duration and amplitude of the disruption, while giving people a bit of indirect control over the situation.
The key is to engage your people in the right way, at the right time, with the right information. A practical way to think about this is as a series of three fundamental questions and answers.
1. During a crisis, what do people hear?
The answer to this question and its corollary, “Why don’t they seem to get what I am trying to tell them?”, lies in the mental process we all undergo in these moments.
Mental noise in high-stress situations reduces the ability to process information by 80%, on average. Under stress, people have difficulty hearing, understanding and recalling information. Data shows that attention spans shrink to just 12 minutes or less, and people are only able to retain three main ideas.
That means most of the 30-minute virtual town hall meetings, or the lengthy email updates explaining all the ins and outs of your company’s response to the virus, probably aren’t breaking through the noise. Keep messages concise and clear. Also think about using graphics, visual aids, analogies and personal anecdotes, which can improve processing by more than 50%.
Leaders of one higher education institution in the US have been sending regular bulletins to staff with the latest updates on their response to the outbreak and implications for employees. In addition to using simple, straightforward language, the bulletins highlight in red text any changes from the prior communication, so recipients can easily scan them to see what’s new. This simple formatting trick has greatly improved communication of the most critical information to staff.
2. How do you best reach them?
Under stress, people react more favorably to trusted messengers or individuals they know and respect. People tend to judge the messenger before they judge the message itself. So choosing messengers who have demonstrated credibility and have been effective in past situations becomes imperative.
Consider who will be most impacted by the crisis and who has the greatest influence on those people. In a corporate environment, an employee’s direct supervisor is typically in the best position to communicate messages and motivate the right behaviors. Depending on the circumstance, another office leader may be the right choice, too. At Bain & Company, updates about the virus and our response come from our 58 office heads. Almost daily, this group takes a standard message received from the center and tailors it to their local needs. Because employees have a personal connection with their office head, they are more likely to trust the message, and it will feel more caring than a blast from the center would.
Who delivers the message matters, but so does the way it’s delivered. People need to know that you truly care about them before they start to care about what you know. It is critical during times of crisis to begin every communication with empathy. A simple opening such as “I know the current situation has been very challenging, and we appreciate the toll it is taking on everyone” helps diffuse anxiety and get people ready to listen to the facts that come next.
Trust can be built in many ways. One is to be open and transparent at every turn. As part of its coronavirus response, Singapore’s government has established a WhatsApp-based system to deliver daily updates to over 500,000 subscribers, providing facts and figures to back up its recommendations. Officials use the platform to highlight current actions and mitigation plans, as well as a readiness to scale up those emergency plans if necessary. The updates give citizens confidence that plans are in place and things will return to normal relatively quickly.
3. How will they respond?
It’s important to understand that pushback―or resistance, as we like to call it―is inevitable with any type of major change. Resistance can actually be a positive sign, evidence that people are hearing your message. It is a natural reaction to feeling a loss of control. People are no longer able to operate as they had expected, and that’s uncomfortable. It’s counterintuitive, but leaders should embrace resistance when it emerges, because only then can they respond wisely.
Resistance follows highly predictable patterns. Think of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief as a guide to how people process difficult change. After the initial shock, the steps are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The early response in Italy to the partial restrictions issued at first in the north exemplifies the resistance phenomenon. After a presumed period of shock, denial and anger, many residents entered a period of bargaining, the “you should make an exception for me because . . . ” stage. Many continued going about their daily lives. The virus continued to spread.
We highlight this example not to cast blame but to illustrate that the reaction is totally normal and to be expected. Italy’s more recent implementation of a nationwide restriction on movement and closure of nonessential businesses seems to have been more successful. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte asked Italians to join him in an “I Stay Home” pledge. He urged citizens to make a common sacrifice to protect the elderly and avoid overwhelming the health system. His messages were full of empathy and clear facts, painting a picture of why this was necessary. Conte’s approach helped his people move quickly through the resistance curve, accept the change and stay home.
Leaders are trained to see resistance as bad when, in fact, it is the first sign that people are taking the change seriously. The right leadership reaction to resistance is to listen with empathy. Only then can you remind people why things need to change and begin to discuss how to make the change happen.
In crisis situations, especially those as fluid as the coronavirus outbreak, many leaders are naturally drawn to a more protective, or fixed, mindset and behaviors. This can include defensiveness, denial, intransience in the face of changing facts on the ground and even blaming others.
A learning mindset will serve you better. It involves adapting to what is needed and being willing to adjust a game plan as new facts emerge. Address the challenge with openness and optimism, conveying empathy for how people may feel.
It’s not only what you do that matters. How you do it is just as relevant, and in times of crisis, even more important to get right. The leaders Goodwin profiles in her book—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—though of different backgrounds, abilities and temperament, were all guided by a sense of moral purpose and a deep-seated authenticity. This combination of purpose and authenticity gave them the ability to lead through times of fracture and fear.
Now, COVID-19 is again shining a light on the challenges of leading through change and crisis. By learning the lessons of history and experience, we can make better decisions today.
Peter Slagt is a partner with Bain & Company’s Global Results Delivery® practice and is based in Singapore. David Michels is a partner in Bain’s Zurich office and global leader of the firm’s Results Delivery practice. Melissa Burke is the global practice director of the Results Delivery practice and is based in Atlanta.
Results Delivery® is a registered trademark of Bain & Company, Inc.