In the days, weeks and months ahead, you have a new job—to ensure in an unprecedented time that the people you lead continue to trust in your leadership and in the future.
The impact of COVID-19 on the world is immeasurable. There likely isn’t a single person on the planet for whom life is the same today as it was just a few weeks ago.
For business leaders, one thing hasn’t changed: you are still the person your teams look to for guidance and stability.
Over the past few weeks, your days have been consumed with the logistics of keeping employees safe, secure and healthy, first and foremost. You’ve also worked to keep them as connected and productive as possible in a new world of physical distancing, self-isolation and uncertainty.
In the days, weeks and months ahead, you have a new job—to ensure that the people you lead continue to trust in your leadership and in the future. That’s a tall order at a time when no one really knows what that future will bring or what the timeline for recovery—both public health and economic—will look like. But there are some concrete steps you can take to build trust and confidence.
For the past 20 years, I have held various leadership positions in higher education and business, and before that, I spent years in the public sector, including on Capitol Hill and at the White House. Throughout my career, I have had an opportunity to see some of the most charismatic leaders successfully handle crises.
Here are some lessons on how to build trust and confidence that I learned from their examples:
Demonstrate confidence, calm and candor
It’s easier said than done. The ability to remain calm and focused during a crisis and to model that behavior for others is essential as a leader. This isn’t the time for false confidence or bravado, which can actually demoralize people. Focus on being transparent and authentic. It’s okay to admit that you don’t have all the answers. Your people won’t expect you to. But you need to face them calmly and reassure them that you’re listening to stakeholders, evaluating the situation, considering options, and making decisions for the company or organization with facts and analysis at the forefront.
In a crisis, people need to be able to trust the information they receive. When you can show that you are relying on the available factual information to lay out a plan and set tasks that move the organization forward, it can build trust and creates a sense of calm. Panic can be contagious, but so can confidence: when you demonstrate it in front of your employees, you set the tone for the entire organization.
This isn’t the time for false confidence or bravado, which can demoralize people. Focus on being transparent and authentic. It’s okay to admit that you don’t have all the answers.
Communicate along parallel paths
Navigating a crisis requires leaders to think and communicate along parallel paths.
The first path is commercial. It concerns the business mission going forward. You need to be able to communicate the business forecast and expectations candidly and clearly. What will the coming months look like? What can people expect? How will the crisis affect budgets, resources and priorities in the near and longer term? While you may not have certainty, giving people some sense of what the future holds provides your team—even those who may be furloughed for a period—something to look toward and aspire to down the road.
The second path is personal. A crisis like the current pandemic obviously doesn’t impact just the business landscape, it affects each of us as individuals with families and friends. Of late, when people ask, “How are you?”, it’s not a routine greeting. They are asking the question sincerely and listening to the answer attentively, and business leaders must do the same or more. People are worried about their jobs, families, health, long-term prospects, 401(k)s and kids’ educations, and those concerns have to be included in the conversation.
If, in the past, your organization hasn’t cultivated a strong and connected culture, this is your opportunity to create one. A crisis can bring out the best in leaders and the people they lead, so be human, be authentic and focus on building a culture of care and empathy among your people at every level.
The human and commercial components are intertwined, and effective leaders who want to build trust will communicate about and act on both simultaneously. Every time you communicate in your organization, you need to speak to the day-to-day concerns of your employees and customers as well as the business needs.
A crisis can bring out the best in leaders and the people they lead. If your organization hasn’t cultivated a strong and connected culture, this is your opportunity to create one.
Maintain a sense of humor
There is no humor in a situation where lives and livelihoods are at risk. At the same time, I personally find it impossible to navigate and tolerate the current environment without finding moments of levity.
What’s happening in the world today is absurdly challenging for families, for businesses, for governments—for all of us. Humor helps to humanize what otherwise can seem like an insurmountable challenge. Being able to crack a joke and smile before getting to the hard work we face helps to alleviate the tension and bring people together. Don’t feel you have to sacrifice that part of yourself in order to lead your people credibly during hard times. Even now, if you can connect with people over a laugh, you can make tackling the hard issues a bit easier.
Even now, if you can connect with people over a laugh, you can make tackling the hard issues a bit easier.
Here’s the bottom line.
More than ever before, your employees are looking to you for comfort and guidance. That’s a heavy burden to place on one person’s shoulders, but it’s part of the job for CEOs. Communicate honestly and authentically. Acknowledge both the human and commercial impacts of this crisis. And don’t be afraid to use humor to bring people together and keep their spirits up.