Leading in a Crisis – Dealing with Ambiguous Threats

Leading in a Crisis – Dealing with Ambiguous Threats

While dealing with an ambiguous threat, with no play book to follow, Leaders with empathy will clearly be at an advantage

An unprecedented pandemic emergency is sweeping across India and many parts of the world. Just when we were congratulating ourselves for vanquishing the virus, the second wave hit us with a devastating ferocity that is far more powerful than the first one. The entire country is facing unparalleled challenges of marshalling scarce resources, channelizing those to the critically ill and coping with the trauma of losing near and dear ones. CEOs of enterprises are dealing with a calamity they’ve never thought they would have to encounter, and there’s no playbook to follow when the emails announcing the names of employees who are fallen to the virus hit their inboxes.

When warning signs are fuzzy

The most challenging aspect of this constantly mutating virus is that it presents an ambiguous threat to leaders of both governments and organizations. When warning signs are fuzzy and potential harm could be large, leaders confront what management scholars call an ambiguous threat. Given the human desire to hope a threat is small, we are drawn to act as if that is factually the case.

The risks of delaying decision-making are often invisible. But in a crisis, wasting vital time in the vain hope that greater clarity will prove no action is needed is dangerous — particularly in the face of a pandemic with an exponential growth rate, when each additional day of delay contributes even greater devastation than the last. Often it is better to act with urgency than wait for full clarity of the situation.

Leading with empathy

Leaders with empathy are clearly having an advantage over others, as they are handling the situation with employee interest overriding every other consideration. The pandemic is testing organization resilience and response on how quickly they are able to anticipate a crisis, rally around resources and respond with empathy.

What is the single most important action your organization has taken so far in its response to COVID-19; the survey asked. A focus on wellness was the leading answer by a landslide to this survey question. From moving to remote work and implementing safety protocols, to assisting workers with personal hardship, organizations put the spotlight on supporting health and safety.

Unite the people

There now is chaos and disruption. There will be … a different state. As this future unfolds, some organizations will be resilient. For others, this future will be catastrophic. The actions of executives and their teams now, in the midst of this crisis, will significantly determine their fate. This is the time for organizations to forge an emotional bond with their employees. The most important sentence people now want to hear from their organizations is, “I am there for you.” As a US transportation and logistics company executive put it in the PwC survey: “Once employees understood they were safe and comfortable, productivity zoomed.”

The solution is to unite people in their efforts and goals as valued members of a cohesive team. This starts with a common, clearly articulated mission that infuses the work with purpose. The mission is then animated through an inclusive leadership approach where each person understands how they can contribute—and that their contribution is recognized. This gives deeper meaning to even the most tedious tasks.

New Zealand – A crisis response case study

The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s response to the pandemic is a case study on how leadership can successfully respond to ambiguous threats. When New Zealand had only 52 confirmed cases last year, she set the alert level at two, restricting some travel and urging people to limit contact. But when cases grew to 205 four days later, the alert system was raised to level four, triggering a nationwide lockdown.

While her political peers — heads of state around the world — worried about their ability to maintain public support for sweeping restrictions, Ardern’s actions showed that honesty and caring yield support. The country reported only 54 cases on April 6, 2020 and only one Covid-19 death since the pandemic started, leading to the Washington Post headline: “New Zealand isn’t just Flattening the Curve. It’s Squashing it.”

Importantly, Ardern’s explicit step system meant that people knew in advance that escalation was coming. They knew what would be required of them — and they accepted the challenge. How a message is delivered matters. Ardern’s communication was clear, honest, and compassionate: It acknowledged the daily sacrifices to come and inspired people to forge ahead in bearing them together. Ardern closed her March 21, 2020, address by thanking New Zealanders for all they were about to do. And her powerful parting words were soon picked up around the globe as people looked for direction in the fog: “Please be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19.”

The lessons from New Zealand’s response can be summed up as follows: act with urgency, communicate with transparency, admit mis-steps and make course corrections, and engage in constant updating of the evolving situation.

Getting ready for the next crisis

Leading through a crisis requires taking the long view, as opposed to managing the present. Leadership needs to anticipate what comes next week, next month, and even next year in order to prepare the organization for the changes ahead. They will need to delegate and trust people as they make tough decisions, providing proper support and guidance based on experience while resisting the temptation to take over.

What should businesses do to prepare for the next inevitable disruption?

  • Designate a crisis response team. When a crisis hits, your team can mobilize and adapt quickly, execute a plan you’ve tested and refined, and keep your critical operations moving.
  • Design a crisis response plan aligned to organization strategy, goals and purpose. A clearly delineated crisis strategy signals the importance of moving beyond a check-the-box plan. And a team which will understand the why of the plan as integral to the organizational vision and purpose.
  • Build an integrated resilience program. Review and refine the response in real-time and in after-action assessments. Incorporate the learnings so that the organization can emerge stronger from this crisis — and ready for what comes next.

This will not be the last pandemic, the question is not whether it will happen, but when.

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