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Leading Through Covid-19: Making Smart Decisions Amid Uncertainty

Margie Warrell
16 Mar 2020
Employee directives to work from home. Travel bans. Conferences postponed, cancelled or taken virtual. Self-quarantines. Social distancing. Stockpiling supplies.

If ever the phrase “VUCA” (the acronym for the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature of today’s world) felt appropriate to use, it’s now.

With no playbook for how best to respond to the rapidly evolving concerns about novel coronavirus, Covid-19, many decision-makers are grappling to strike the right balance between prudent cautiousness and panicked over-reaction. With so many unknowns, playing it “extra-safe” is arguably a sensible response. Yet playing it too safe comes with its own risks.

Navigating the uncertainty of the path ahead in ways that minimize the ongoing fall out will require all who occupy leadership roles to keep fear in check and rethink risk beyond its usual parameters. While there will eventually be many case studies of this turbulent time, it’s my hope the suggestions to follow will help those in charge take better care of those in their charge — with more calm and courage, less panic and fear.

1 - Reassure: Role model ‘Self-certainty’

“I’d rather just get coronavirus and be done with it than go through all this anxious speculation,” a global health consultant told me last week. The take-away – people hate uncertainty. Uncertainty about the potential of an undesirable event often causes more angst than the event itself.

All leadership begins with self-leadership. Given the immense uncertainty around coronavirus, it’s vital that leaders are conscious about showing up in ways that dial down anxiety, not stoke it. You can do this by role modelling what psychologists call “self-certainty” — something you can build by being grounded in internal values — such as integrity, optimism, community, courage, purpose, compassion. Research shows that people with high levels of self-certainty are better at remaining calm in adversity than those whose identity is drawn from external values such as professional status, fame or financial assets. Stanford University found that ‘attitude certainty’ provides a type of psychological safety net that can help us keep fear in check-in uncertain and turbulent times like these.

As headlines drive up the fear factor, people are hungry for reassurance that everything is going to be okay despite. They are looking upward for the certainty they lack.

So think of yourself as an emotional barometer, setting the emotional temperature for those in your charge, giving them cues for how they should respond.

If you’re anxious and stressing out, your fear will spread like a virus into your team and organization, posing a greater threat to future success than any external one. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute has found that our level of anxiety has an inverse relationship to our level of cognition. The more stressed you are, the less smart you think. The less smart others will think also.

On the flip side, if your demeanour is reassured and calm, you’ll reassure others to stay calm and, in turn, help them make smarter decisions.

Grounding yourself in self-certainty requires being crystal clear of the values you want to embody as a leader and then prioritizing what empowers you to role-model them. With so many factors outside of control, it’s vital to manage those within it. So if you think you’ve got too much on your plate to prioritize activities that keep you grounded in self-certainty, consider that you have too much on your plate not to.

The more pressure we’re under, the more deliberate we must be to prioritize what strengthens us and keeps stress in check. Showing up with optimism and empathy, grounded in your innate capacity to meet the challenges ahead will reassure others to do the same. Just keep in mind, people will always be more influenced by the power of your example than the example of your power.

2- Foster connection: Rally employees behind a shared sense of purpose

While visiting my family in rural Australia in January, I found myself doing the unexpected — packing up my parents’ belongings to evacuate bushfires. While it was an anxious period, my family later agreed that it was “the worst of times and the best of times.” While it was a far cry from the vacation I’d envisaged, it rallied my family together around a common purpose – to safeguard each other against the threat of fire — that strengthened our familial bonds in special ways.

Right now, the employees in your charge are feeling very confronted by a common threat. While they may not be coming together physically due to the nature of this threat, letting everyone know that “We’re all in this together, and we will get through it together” can build trust, grow loyalty and strengthen bonds in ways that can never be done in calmer times.

3- Act inclusively: Lead from the heart, not just the head

Relationships are the currency of influence in any workplace. The stronger a leader’s emotional connection with employees, the better placed they’ll be to get employees pulling behind them. So it’s vital to lead from the heart, not just the head, ensuring that everyone feels a sense of belonging and no-one is left feeling left “outside the fold.” As Cindy Hook, CEO of Deloitte Asia Pacific wrote in an article on LinkedIn:

“At times like these, we must avoid finger-pointing, stereotyping, and isolating others, which only serves to exacerbate the current situation. Let’s remember our battle here should be human vs virus, not human vs human.”

Nothing demonstrates how genuinely you care about people more than prioritizing their personal wellbeing over commercial profits. If, in the course of executing austerity measures people are left feeling that they are just numbers on a spreadsheet – human doings vs human beings – rather than real people with families no less precious to them as yours is to you, the damage done to trust will reap a steep hidden tax on the bottom line long after this virus has come and gone.

So prioritize your people. Make yourself visible and connect in unscripted and authentic ways. While tightly crafted memos have their place, nothing beats a personal touch, going out of your way to let people know you care. Pick up the phone. Write a note. Visit the shop floor where appropriate. Do a virtual Town Hall which everyone can watch live or view later. Most of all, ask people how they’re doing and how you can support them. People want to know you’re in the trenches with them and that you’ve got their back.

4- Risk Over-Communication: Bring everyone along, each step of the way

Conspiracy theories and wild-rumours quickly run rampant in the vacuum of not-knowing. The void of information around coronavirus has pulled many people into fear-casting — catastrophizing doomsday like scenarios and acting irrationally. The lack of toilet paper on store shelves around the world indicates many still are.

As a Singapore based CEO, recalling the lessons he learnt from the SARS epidemic, “The most important thing is to be upfront, on point and transparent about what we are doing and why.” So get ahead of your organization’s rumour mill and issue regular updates on exactly what is going on and your plans for handling them.

“It’s important to keep conversations focused on facts and data,” explained the Managing Director of a global supply chain and logistics corporation in an article by EgonZender. “Once you open the door to speculation, irrational behaviour and panic sets in.”

And when your plans and approach changes, which it inevitably will amid the fluidity of the unfolding coronavirus situation, explain why and how. People know you have no playbook. Be transparent with them.

5- Show Decisiveness: Beware of waiting for clarity

Auto-chief Lee Iacocca once said, “The one word that makes a good manager—decisiveness.” But let’s face it, when dealing with a void of reliable information and immense ambiguity, making a decision can just trigger more anxiety. However, as I wrote in a previous column while waiting a little longer can feel like the sensible option, the price we pay for putting off a decision often outweighs the benefits gained by simply committing to a course of action. Indecision may feel safe in the short term, but it ultimately just leaves people feeling less secure, not more so.

So make the best decisions you can right now, with what you currently know. Then, when you know more, make a new decision. Just don’t let the fear of making a wrong decision keep you from making any decision. People need bold decisive leadership right now, not wavering and timidity.

6- Practice Agility: Build organisational resilience

Necessity is hailed as the mother of invention and at times like this, it’s imperative to be more inventive in how you do business. For me, this has meant equipping my office for webinar presentations that employees in client organizations can access from anywhere versus speaking at in-person events. For you, it may be changing your purchasing terms, flexible work arrangements, communication processes, or sick-care policies.

As Kipling Partners’ Gaby Riddington, who coaches CEO’s across the Asia Pacific Region, shared with me:

“Leaders who are being proactive in finding creative ways to solve logistical challenges and brainstorming new approaches are those whose organizations will emerge the other side of this crisis more agile, more competitive and better off.”

Find ways of using this crisis as a catalyst for doing business better. For innovating, reengineering, getting closer to customers and more creative with distribution, marketing, internal communications. Use this time in ways that will serve your stakeholders well long after this virus has been contained.

Einstein once observed that our most significant problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking at which they were created. The global outbreak of Covid-19 presents a significant problem. Amid its volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity lay hidden opportunities for learning, reinvention, and evolution – at the individual, organizational and societal levels.

Given that all exceptional leadership begins with self-leadership, now is a prime time for leaders at every level to elevate their thinking and ground themselves in the values that define the leader they aspire to be. Compassionate. Calm. Courageous.

After all, when fear runs high, the need for courage runs higher.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that the worst of times can bring out the best in people — individually and collectively — stretching us to think more broadly and advance more intelligently. Let’s focus on doing just that.

Margie Warrell is an international authority on courageous leadership. In response to the challenges faced relating to COVID-19 Margie is also available for virtual programs via webinar & live stream. To engage Margie for your next event get in touch.

This article was first published in Forbes on March 8, 2020.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.

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