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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.