Sound leadership communication underscores the real importance of putting people and communications at the centre of crisis leadership. Achieving a blend between these two critical aspects is the hallmark of effective crisis and people management and can ultimately define the post crisis stability of an organization

Nelson Opany

As a leader, among the key considerations to succeed in navigating your team through crisis is creating an environment in which your team feels safe and empowered to individually play their role in helping the organization overcome the crisis.

An article by McKinsey & Company on 6th March 2020 titled Leadership in a crisis: Responding to coronavirus outbreak and future challenges shares some great insights into leadership practices that can help leaders respond effectively in times of crises. The article suggests building a network of teams to support crisis response; adopting deliberate calm and bounded optimism in crisis decisionmaking; pausing to assess and anticipate before taking decisions; demonstrating empathy in dealing with human tragedy as a first priority; and, communicating effectively, transparently and frequently.

Sound leadership communication underscores the real importance of putting people and communications at the centre of crisis leadership. Achieving a blend between these two critical aspects is the hallmark of effective crisis and people management and can ultimately define the post crisis stability of an organization.

In a crisis, leaders need to focus their energies on taking care of their most precious resource – people, in focused and effective ways, using communications as a pivotal tool.

It’s not about a Plan but a Culture

It greatly helps to invest in building a set of behaviors and preparedness mindsets that cushion leaders and their teams, from overreactions that could jeopardize their physical and mental strength to navigate through a crisis. This is contrary to popular practice of developing massive policies and guidelines that people even forget exist when a crisis sets in. What this implies is crises are won or lost even before they occur. Leaders who build agility into organizational processes during normal times will have the ‘software’ needed to go through difficult times.

Corporate cultures founded on values of human care, mutual respect and open communication help to build strong teams and develop social capital that galvanizes people around each other to create a support system on and off work. Such cultures lessen the stress of transitioning to unfamiliar situations when crises occur.

Crisis leadership may sometimes require leaders to coordinate and motivate their teams from a distance. This comes with unique challenges for which agile leaders need to acquire special skills before crises occur. At such times the simplest actions may be the most impactful as people shift focus to small wins that bring them immediate sense of success and satisfaction.

It may also demand leaders to anticipate different potential outcome scenarios and how to react when they happen. This helps to prepare people psychologically and the organization for any outcome hence increasing the chances of success. At such times the simplest actions may be the most impactful as people shift focus to small wins that bring them immediate sense of success and satisfaction.

Finding a Silver Lining in Times of Difficulty

Crises can create stressful demands requiring a delicate balance between continuing implementation of earlier defined plans and the need to address emerging challenges. Difficult times require great coordination and rescoping of work for each team member amidst new priorities that come with managing the crisis. It calls for adjusting existing plans, lowering of expectations on your team and reviewing performance targets.

Surviving a crisis demands great agility in organizational management. According to Ahmad Alhendawi, the Secretary General of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, developing an agile organization during a crisis requires a response to current realities that allow for quick reconfigurations of strategy, structure, processes, people and technology towards supporting the organization during a crisis.

Every dark cloud has a silver lining. As much as they bring challenges, crises can be eye-openers to great opportunities for individuals and organizations to reinvent themselves. They are moments to rethink normal programming and standard operations. Leading an organization through turbulent times calls for lots of creativity and innovation. Adversity can help people innovate new approaches to doing things differently that can change future growth trajectories of organizations. Deploying technology across functions can also offer new paths for enhanced effectiveness and efficiency.

From physical to mental rejuvenation, crises can also create opportunities for personal and professional development. When people take a break from normal work schedules, they find time and space to explore new things that improve them physically, mentally, socially, academically and professionally.

Transparency in Information and Decisions

During crisis we must dissuade ourselves from thinking that a top down approach will always deliver best results out of the situation. Sometimes galvanizing team members around creative and strategic thinking can offer unimagined ways out of a crisis. Operational level employees can offer frontline understanding of their personal and organizational challenges in ways top executives may not always appreciate.

Whatever decisions leaders make at such moments require the full understanding and support of their teams to succeed. Simple, effective, honest and frequent communication is precious. Leaders need to maintain open two-way communication to build confidence and trust across the organization. This will help in managing the sometimes sharply varying expectations, emanating from the uncertainties brought about by the crises.

Organizations need to employ collaborative and transparent decisionmaking processes, that allow for constant learning and adaptation to ensure organizational priorities remain on track, albeit under different circumstances. This promotes rapid problem solving and execution under high stress, and quick reconfigurations in times of crisis. It also creates a platform for bouncing back when it’s all over.

Future-Proof Organizations

In crisis, leaders need to maintain a clear vision around which they unify the organization, something they cannot achieve without persuasive communication. Organizations that intentionally invest in building good relations with employees will benefit, in times of crisis, from empowered, passionate and dynamic teams that become critical in adoption of a rapid decision and learning cycle when it really matters. Enabling technology can offer much-needed leverage to sustain virtual connections and efficiency when physical contact becomes limited.

When crises occur, they no doubt come with great ramifications that stay on long after they have ended. Despite the real need to address immediate emerging concerns, it’s important for leaders to choose to look ahead. Building future-proof organizations means learning from a crisis and implementing measures for long term stability. Crises offer conscious leaders vital lessons on challenging existing strategies and practices, to innovate new ways that open unprecedented opportunities for future achievements.

Crises bring out the value of effective corporate communications to both internal and external audiences – lack of which breeds unfounded anxiety, misinformation, fear and mistrust. Most importantly, they remind us of how important our relationships with each other are, and the need to invest in building social capital within and outside our organizations as these become the fuel that drives us through difficult times. How organizations adapt to the longterm impacts of crises is to a large extent determined by how leaders treat their people and how effectively they deploy communications when it matters most.

This article was published by the Public Relations Society of Kenya on pages 80-81 of its PR Digest Magazine, Issue 3 of March-May 2020.

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