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StrategyApr 07, 2020

Leadership During Uninvited Change: Navigating the COVID Crisis by Meeting People’s Needs

Sandra Beno

Uninvited change is like getting hit by a car. Unexpected and leaving little time to process things, and simultaneously demanding of you to react. As the surprise-factor lingers, working through a checklist to guide next steps is helpful. This process of leading yourself and others by addressing basic human needs for security and stability in an environment of unknowns is critical. As we experience COVID-19, we process it personally and also have the privilege of leading others through this period of uninvited change.

Reflecting on when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, I also happened to receive news of a major personal health crisis the same day and was immediately thrust into a nebulous, no guarantee season of life. Coaching myself through my “change enablement checklist” to stabilize emotionally and physically, I identified and organized needs to navigate the daily challenges that this uninvited change created.

Likewise, as we lead our companies and teams through this unprecedented time created by the COVID-19 outbreak, we respectfully navigate the risks of the virus to business and health, while rising to the opportunity of leading people through this uninvited change.

It’s an honor to share three key learnings to equip your leadership with tools people really need at this time of unexpected, uninvited change.

need #1: any information

So Communicate Frequently

Communication is an essential tool, especially during a crisis. Even when the details are not fully baked or have not changed, providing consistent and frequent communication meets the human need of awareness and connection.

Consider the people you lead: For them, it is an anxious time to be zooming into the unknown with limited information and anemic communication touchpoints.

If you find yourself opting out of touching base with your people by thinking someone else is doing it, or by saying, “there is nothing new to communicate,” then that is precisely what you tell your organization. And, they want to hear from CEOs and executive leaders. They have a basic human need to feel secure and this talking point will assure them that they have heard the latest update, and nothing is progressing without their awareness or inclusion.

Remember, they want to get to the next stage with you, and your regular communication lets them know where things are in the process. It also helps if you have a method setup where your teams can share concerns, comments, ideas or ask questions. Remind them that help is available if they need anything.

Here are a few practical suggestions to use more than one communication method each week:

  • Email: Set the same time daily and deliver a structured outline of content. Fill in the updates and keep the information that has not yet changed. When you communicate:

    • Start with a brief update from the macro view and your personal note on the crisis

    • Spend a little time on the impact to the company

    • Spend more time on the impact to them as individuals, always outlining something they can do about it – even if it is something as simple as “stay connected, focus on your meetings, drink water and #washyourhands”

    • Paint a picture of hope for the future when things finally settle

  • Virtual/Live: Deliver a 30-minute, weekly Friday virtual meeting to cover company highlights, acknowledge current state truth, instill future state hope, acknowledge questions, and orient focus for the week

  • Post Video News: Record a video that highlights your key talking points and incorporate images that support your bullet points. (Maximum length of time: 3-minutes.) This makes the message available for people who are unable to attend virtual sessions

need #2: hope

So Paint a Picture of the Future

Hope is a powerful tool since it orients us forward. However, it’s difficult to conjure up hope when the present seems uncertain. When change happens, your teams might be struggling because they can’t visualize what the future might hold for them. For clarity and direction, they need leadership to paint the next “new normal” picture for hope.

For example, when we were buying a new house, my daughter was extremely resistant to the idea. After some conversation and a little sleuthing, we realized that she couldn’t picture where she would hang her backpack in the new house; thus, she didn’t want to move. By figuring out what she couldn’t see, speaking to her concerns, and helping her visualize the place in our new home where she could hang her backpack, our problems were solved. She just needed my help to envision what the change would mean for her.

Help your employees see where they will hang their backpacks. Cast the vision for the positive future state. Ask them questions to determine what their fears are, and then add clarity about their roles in those areas. As leaders, we might not always have all the answers and the clarity might not be as simple as putting a hook on a wall in a new house. But finding the root of anxiety and fear and speaking to it specifically (even without perfect certainty) will help focus people forward and build hope in the future.

need #3: control

So Suggest Actions that Give Personal Control

In times of crisis, people are reminded of our inability to fully control our circumstances, which significantly adds to stress and anxiety. It’s an uncomfortable reality check. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, countless “staples” in our world have changed in the span of six weeks.

Of course, it’s always been true that humans don’t have total authority over their lives or futures. But coming face to face with this reality negatively effects feelings of security, hinders our ability to process information, and can impact productivity as people worry about what other changes might happen.

As a leader, find ways to give your employees a sense of control. Control is a personalized tool that empowers people through action.

Often in leadership, we have early access to information (communication we do not have to wait for) and responsibility to make decisions (actions we control), but when your team is waiting on information and have nothing to personally do to help move themselves to the new normal, it becomes rough to stabilize emotionally. Give guidance on what they can do. For example, call your customers, attend your virtual meetings, host virtual happy hours with colleagues, stay hydrated, wash hands well, and wear gloves/masks when going out. While these are basic techniques to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, they also give people actions they can control that directly align with what is happening to them.

These three actions can also serve as general examples of how to exert some control over the situation:

  1. Mentally Manage the Change: Take it all one step at a time. Don’t look at the huge journey ahead, but focus on a much smaller set of goals. In short, “eat the elephant one small bite at a time.”

  2. Choose the Right Mindset: We all wake up each day with a choice about how to take on the day. If we choose, we can face change head-on with a positive mindset and a reminder that each step of this day is one step closer to our “new” goal.

  3. Celebrate: Take the time to celebrate accomplishments, instead of focusing on what remains. Focusing on small chunks and celebrating each completed milestone as a victory is helpful to maintain calm while taking these small steps toward the new normal.

next steps

Leading your organization through the COVID-19 epidemic may feel daunting, but remembering and applying these basic change management principals can help. This change was uninvited and feels ever-evolving, but you can provide a sense of normalcy and security to your people. You can be an anchor in this uninvited and unknown storm.

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