Navigating Crisis — Is your leadership trust tank full enough?
I occasionally dip into accounts of great explorers and their expeditions and one thing they teach you is that great adversity, marked by uncertainty and stress, serves as a laboratory for testing human dynamics. History is studded with accounts of members of parties bickering, backstabbing, slandering, and even, in some cases, mutinying and murdering.
Crises have the potential to bring out the best and worst in us. The responses to this pandemic have served as a reminder to me of how there are a few elemental forces that hold our world together. Watching how the event unfolded highlighted how important trust and safety are in our human makeup.
The current COVID-19 pandemic serves as a flashlight on organizational cultures and leadership behaviors. I’ve sat with interest observing how leaders and companies handle difficult decisions, how they lead and respond in this crisis, how they manage the fears of employees, all of this reveals and says a lot about who they are, and their authentic levels of connection, trust and safety
“Watching how the event unfolded highlighted how important trust and safety are in our human makeup.”
Isn’t this the thing about crises & adversity? Whilst grappling to understand the moment, people are looking at their workplaces and leaders to provide a response that makes them feel secure. Leaders are juggling managing the situation and coming to terms with it, combined with the pressure of time and contradictory demands and being expected to offer marvelously manicured responses to their people, who are waiting for them to serve them the safety they crave.
Those organizations that micromanage, control, and distrust have been slower off the ground, putting rules and policies in place instead of using their people to innovate and maneuver around the crisis. I’ve heard stories of tracking log in and log off times and receiving individual stats on emails sent. In one particular example, City Scooter startup Bird laid off 406 People in Two Minutes via a Zoom Webinar. These are examples of leadership behaviors that lack human connection, and the understanding of the importance to create a business culture around leadership trust and safety.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are organizations that have shown great care for their people. Great tenderness, love and human to human connection. They’ve had a “let’s work through this together” mentality in the midst of making challenging decisions. Those leaders and organizations that invested time and energy in understanding their people, and developed deep leadership trust and safety prior to the crisis, have been able to respond ninja like to this unique set of circumstances.
In the Harvard Business Review (HBS) article titled, ‘What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic,’ the writers break down four lessons for leaders in crisis:
- Act with urgency
- Communicate with transparency
- Respond productively to missteps
- Engage in constant updating
The article highlights two leaders and their response to the COVID-19 crisis. The first, Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), and his decisive decision to suspend the professional basketball lead for the season – well before local state jurisdictions in the United States began to restrict public gatherings of any size. The rationale? Over one million fans would avoid potential exposure to the virus at NBA games. This set off a ripple effect in the sports world, with organizations such as the National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the yearly “March Madness” college basketball tournament halting play.
The second leader highlighted is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic. In a televised eight-minute statement in late March, Prime Minister Ardern announced the COVID-19 alert system, consisting of four levels, modeled after the similarly used fire risk system already in place in New Zealand. The result? Strict lockdown measures. With only 52 confirmed cases, the alert system was set to level two, restricting some travel and urging the public to limit contact. When cases grew to 205 four days after the level two alert, the system was raised to level four, resulting in a nationwide lockdown. By early April, New Zealand had only 54 cases and one COVID-19 death since the pandemic began encouraging the Washington Post to write in a headline: “New Zealand isn’t just Flattening the Curve. It’s Squashing it.”
“Those leaders and organizations that invested time and energy in understanding their people, and developed deep trust and safety prior to the crisis, have been able to respond ninja like to this unique set of circumstances.”
In general, employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance. Traits which are in high demand during this time of uncertainty.
Neuroscientists are discovering more about how our brains are wired, and the strong connections between the parts related to trust, social connectivity and wellbeing. American neuroeconomist Paul J Zak studies the neuroscience of trust. His early experiments revealed people who felt connected and trusted each other experienced what he called “virtuous cycles” of higher oxytocin levels (the love drug). His research shows that higher levels of trust lead to noticeable improvements in performance, investment and the ability to respond to adversity.
Paul identified 8 leadership behaviors that foster leadership trust:
- Recognize excellence
- Induce “challenge stress” (achievable stretch goals)
- Give people discretion in how they do their job
- Enable job crafting
- Share information broadly
- Intentionally build relationships
- Facilitate whole-person growth
- Show vulnerability
Within this time, one of the best things I keep hearing is how people are stepping up in new unfamiliar roles, taking on new responsibilities, and bringing a set of new attributes to their daily work. In order to do this in organizations, you need to be able to trust and be trusted.
One of the people I work with reported that “being open has provided a diversity of thought to problem solving during the crisis, increasing our chances of innovating and surviving. Team members have come up with ideas for tackling problems that I wouldn’t have considered. In one specific example, they had suggested a new idea, which led the team to innovate and bring in a new source of income solidifying our financial position. This stream of income will remain with us into the future.” When I asked him how this had come about, he told me that the work that they had carried out within the company to develop deeper relationships and a culture of openness had proven to be a crucial and significant investment. He also highlighted that despite being uncomfortable, his ability to be real and vulnerable about the current concerns had supported others to come forward to share, creating a deep sense of safety and trust.
"When you sugarcoat, you come across as someone who’s out of touch. When the truth comes out in dribs and drabs, it’s captured as unauthentic by its audience.”
The ability to share openly is often seen as the wrong thing to do. You may be tempted to gloss over news that won’t be well received, particularly in times of crisis. When you sugarcoat, you come across as someone who’s out of touch. When the truth comes out in dribs and drabs, it’s captured as unauthentic by its audience.
Too often we see this culture work as a luxury, but at these times it really does allow you to ride that wave with much more ease. Those organizations that have developed strong roots of trust and safety have been able to adapt and be more resilient through this period. Whether they are able to thrive or if they have to take the tough decision to shut their doors, having trust and safety at the core of the company allows everyone to move through this transition in a more resilient manner.
One thing that characterizes all successful journeys is the trust that team members place in each other and their ability to respond when things get tough. Explorers don’t always reach their desired destinations, they find lands they didn’t expect and experience things they couldn’t have imagined, they come back transformed not because they reached a particular goal, but because of what they discovered within themselves and each other along the way. It won’t be the crisis itself, but how we respond, and what we learn from it, that will define us.
COVID-19 Small Business Resources
As businesses navigate this unsettling time, know there are many helpful resources to seek aid and upskilling your employees. We’ve compiled a short list that we hope serves you:
COVID-19 Resources for Small Businesses (SBA)
8 of the Best Resources for Upskilling Your Employees
COVID-19 Resources for Small Businesses in the UK
Small Business Majority Community