5 Strategies for Leading Through The Uncertainty Of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a testing ground for leaders around the world. Leadership is always important, but especially during times of crisis. When each day brings new challenges, the choices leaders make can have a tremendous impact on outcomes, positive or negative.

It is normal for people to lose focus during a crisis; uncertainty tends to undermine people’s motivation and morale. The leader’s job is to remind people of the long-term vision; to give them hope and the promise of a better—or at least back-to-normal—tomorrow.

As we move through this global pandemic, now is a good time to review and respond wisely to the five stages of concern people have during periods of change:

  1. Information concerns – In the absence of clear, factual communication, people tend to create their own information. Rumors abound and create confusion. That is why it’s so important to take charge of the conversation. People want to know whatever you know, even if it’s no different than what you knew yesterday. They want to know what is changing and why.

Response: Communicate verified facts early and often. Provide clear direction. Even if there’s no change in the status quo, keep communicating.

  1. Personal concerns – People wonder how change will affect them. If you don’t permit people to express their feelings about what’s happening, these feelings will persist. Yet if you allow people to deal with what is bothering them, in the very process of grappling with their feelings, their anxiety often goes away. “How will this change impact me personally?” is the question foremost in people’s minds.

Response: Keep two-way communication lines open so that people can talk about their concerns.

  1. Implementation concerns – At this stage people want to know how to perform in the face of the change. What information is needed? What are the tools, plans, and strategies for the immediate future? Have enough resources been allocated?

Response: Involve people in finding ways forward. Since they’re the ones who will be implementing any new plans and strategies, their insights will be crucial, and you’ll need their buy-in to succeed.

  1. Impact concerns – Once people’s anxiety about the first three stages are handled, they begin to wonder about the impact their efforts are having. Are things getting better? Are the strategies working? Are we going to be able to sustain this effort? Leaders can keep people engaged and motivated if they provide encouragement at this stage.

Response: Focus on the positive impact of people’s efforts and recognize their successes.

  1. Refinement concerns – At this stage time has passed and people have had a chance to see what is and isn’t working. Their concerns now focus on improving systems and processes. What have we learned that we can leverage? How can we do this better or faster?

Response: Now is not the time for leaders to drop the ball! Continue to practice the leadership strategies outlined in the five stages of concern above.

Good leadership not only can reduce the negative impact of a crisis, it also can make an organization stronger. For example, during the business slow-down after 9/11, the leadership team of our company resisted the kneejerk response to lay people off. Instead, everyone earning above a certain threshold took salary cuts. We convened a special meeting where we invited the entire staff to brainstorm measures the company could take to maximize income and cut costs. Not only did the company make it through the crisis, it thrived. When business started picking up again, we were still fully staffed. This gave us a business advantage, since we didn’t have to spend time hiring and training new people when the economy recovered.

There is no better time to lead at a higher level. Remember, our job as leaders is to serve, not to be served. Let’s start by serving our people and responding to their concerns, because they are our number one customer. Together, we’ll get through this.

Changing Your Focus Will Change Your Energy

Last week Margie and I spent a few days down in the Bahamas. During a conversation with the general manager of the hotel, we learned their buildings had sustained quite a lot of damage as a result of Hurricane Irma in 2017. His story of how the staff and management worked together to get things back to normal and how they helped each other get through that tough time was inspiring.

Right now they are in another tough situation—they have learned the hotel may be sold but they know nothing about the buyers or whether their jobs will still be there. Once more they’re all facing the unknown together. Margie suggested to the manager that I could hold a session for them all the next day and the manager enthusiastically agreed.

When I was getting myself ready to speak to the hotel staff, I thought about how it might be uplifting for them to have an outsider—someone who isn’t emotionally involved—come in and give them a little boost with some humor and encouragement. So, I started off with an exercise I learned from Tony Robbins that our trainers sometimes use as an ice breaker.

I had everyone in the room stand up. I said, “I want you to walk around and greet as many people as possible as if you were looking for somebody much more important to talk to.” I gave them all a minute or two. The sound in the room was a low rumble of mostly quiet voices. Then I got their attention and said, “Now I want you to go around and greet as many people as possible as if they were a long-term friend that you were excited to see.” The energy level in the room suddenly shot up and the sound was deafening! The mood had instantly shifted from somber to exuberant.

The point is this: when the thing we are focusing on changes, our energy changes. We can sit around and worry about a bad situation that might (or might not) get worse—or we can focus on what we can accomplish when we work together toward the same goal. I pointed out to this group that they had already proven they could accomplish anything, and that they can do it again. They know their strengths and they can encourage each other, empower each other, and lead each other through tough times. My message lifted their spirits.

By changing your focus from negative to positive, you can do the same. When have you changed your focus and allowed your energy to help you through a tough time? I’d love to read your response in the comments below.

Have a great week!