For many executives, the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis unlike any other in recent times. Five leadership practices can help you respond effectively.
The coronavirus pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on leaders in business and beyond. The humanitarian toll taken by COVID-19 creates fear among employees and other stakeholders. The massive scale of the outbreak and its sheer unpredictability make it challenging for executives to respond. Indeed, the outbreak has the hallmarks of a “landscape scale” crisis: an unexpected event or sequence of events of enormous scale and overwhelming speed, resulting in a high degree of uncertainty that gives rise to disorientation, a feeling of lost control, and strong emotional disturbance.
Recognizing that a company faces a crisis is the first thing leaders must do. It is a difficult step, especially during the onset of crises that do not arrive suddenly but grow out of familiar circumstances that mask their nature.2 Examples of such crises include the SARS outbreak of 2002–03 and now the coronavirus pandemic. Seeing a slow-developing crisis for what it might become requires leaders to overcome the normalcy bias, which can cause them to underestimate both the possibility of a crisis and the impact that it could have.
Once leaders recognize a crisis as such, they can begin to mount a response. But they cannot respond as they would in a routine emergency, by following plans that had been drawn up in advance. During a crisis, which is ruled by unfamiliarity and uncertainty, effective responses are largely improvised.4 They might span a wide range of actions: not just temporary moves (for example, instituting work-from-home policies) but also adjustments to ongoing business practices (such as the adoption of new tools to aid collaboration), which can be beneficial to maintain even after the crisis has passed.
What leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead. In this article, we explore five such behaviors and accompanying mindsets that can help leaders navigate the coronavirus pandemic and future crises.
Organizing to respond to crises: The network of teams
During a crisis, leaders must relinquish the belief that a top-down response will engender stability. In routine emergencies, the typical company can rely on its command-and-control structure to manage operations well by carrying out a scripted response. But in crises characterized by uncertainty, leaders face problems that are unfamiliar and poorly understood. A small group of executives at an organization’s highest level cannot collect information or make decisions quickly enough to respond effectively. Leaders can better mobilize their organizations by setting clear priorities for the response and empowering others to discover and implement solutions that serve those priorities.
To promote rapid problem solving and execution under high-stress, chaotic conditions, leaders can organize a network of teams. Although the network of teams is a widely known construct, it is worth highlighting because relatively few companies have experience in implementing one. A network of teams consists of a highly adaptable assembly of groups, which are united by a common purpose and work together in much the same way that the individuals on a single team collaborate (exhibit).
Some parts of the network pursue actions that take place outside regular business operations. Other parts identify the crisis’s implications for routine business activities and make adjustments, such as helping employees adapt to new working norms. In many cases, the network of teams will include an integrated nerve center covering four domains: workforce protection, supply-chain stabilization, customer engagement, and financial stress testing (for more, see “Responding to coronavirus: The minimum viable nerve center”).
In many cases, the network of teams will include an integrated nerve center covering four domains: workforce protection, supply-chain stabilization, customer engagement, and financial stress testing.
Regardless of their functional scope, effective networks of teams display several qualities. They are multidisciplinary: experience shows that crises present a degree of complexity that makes it necessary to engage experts from different fields. They are designed to act. Merely soliciting experts’ ideas is not enough; experts must gather information, devise solutions, put them into practice, and refine them as they go. And they are adaptable, reorganizing, expanding, or contracting as teams learn more about the crisis and as conditions change.
Leaders should foster collaboration and transparency across the network of teams. One way they do this is by distributing authority and sharing information: in other words, demonstrating how the teams themselves should operate. In crisis situations, a leader’s instinct might be to consolidate decision-making authority and control information, providing it on a strictly need-to-know basis. Doing the opposite will encourage teams to follow suit.
Another crucial part of the leader’s role, especially in the emotional, tense environment that characterizes a crisis, is promoting psychological safety so people can openly discuss ideas, questions, and concerns without fear of repercussions. This allows the network of teams to make sense of the situation, and how to handle it, through healthy debate.
Elevating leaders during a crisis: The value of ‘deliberate calm’ and ‘bounded optimism’
Just as an organization’s senior executives must be prepared to temporarily shift some responsibilities from their command-and-control hierarchy to a network of teams, they must also empower others to direct many aspects of the organization’s crisis response. This involves granting them the authority to make and implement decisions without having to gain approval. One important function of senior executives is to quickly establish an architecture for decision making, so that accountability is clear and decisions are made by appropriate people at different levels.
Senior leaders must also make sure that they empower the right people to make crisis-response decisions across the network of teams. Since decision makers will probably make some mistakes, they must be able to learn quickly and make corrections without overreacting or paralyzing the organization. At the start of a crisis, senior leaders will have to appoint decision makers to direct the crisis response. But as the crisis evolves, new crisis-response leaders will naturally emerge in a network-of-teams construct, and those crisis-response leaders won’t always be senior executives.
In routine emergencies, experience is perhaps the most valuable quality that leaders bring. But in novel, landscape-scale crises, character is of the utmost importance. Crisis-response leaders must be able to unify teams behind a single purpose and frame questions for them to investigate. The best will display several qualities. One is “deliberate calm,” the ability to detach from a fraught situation and think clearly about how one will navigate it.6 Deliberate calm is most often found in well-grounded individuals who possess humility but not helplessness.
Another important quality is “bounded optimism,” or confidence combined with realism. Early in a crisis, if leaders display excessive confidence in spite of obviously difficult conditions, they can lose credibility. It is more effective for leaders to project confidence that the organization will find a way through its tough situation but also show that they recognize the crisis’s uncertainty and have begun to grapple with it by collecting more information. When the crisis has passed, then optimism will be more beneficial (and can be far less bounded).
Making decisions amid uncertainty: Pause to assess and anticipate, then act
Waiting for a full set of facts to emerge before determining what to do is another common mistake that leaders make during crises. Because a crisis involves many unknowns and surprises, facts may not become clear within the necessary decision-making time frame. But leaders should not resort to using their intuition alone. Leaders can better cope with uncertainty and the feeling of jamais vu (déjà vu’s opposite) by continually collecting information as the crisis unfolds and observing how well their responses work.
In practice, this means frequently pausing from crisis management, assessing the situation from multiple vantage points, anticipating what may happen next, and then acting. The pause-assess-anticipate-act cycle should be ongoing, for it helps leaders maintain a state of deliberate calm and avoid overreacting to new information as it comes in. While some moments during the crisis will call for immediate action, with no time to assess or anticipate, leaders will eventually find occasions to stop, reflect, and think ahead before making further moves.
Two cognitive behaviors can aid leaders as they assess and anticipate. One, called updating, involves revising ideas based on new information teams collect and knowledge they develop. The second, doubting, helps leaders consider ongoing and potential actions critically and decide whether they need to be modified, adopted, or discarded. Updating and doubting help leaders mediate their dueling impulses to conceive solutions based on what they’ve done previously and to make up new solutions without drawing on past lessons. Instead, leaders bring their experiences to bear while accepting new insights as they emerge.
Once leaders decide what to do, they must act with resolve. Visible decisiveness not only builds the organization’s confidence in leaders; it also motivates the network of teams to sustain its search for solutions to the challenges that the organization faces.
Demonstrating empathy: Deal with the human tragedy as a first priority
In a landscape-scale crisis, people’s minds turn first to their own survival and other basic needs. Will I be sickened or hurt? Will my family? What happens then? Who will care for us? Leaders shouldn’t assign communications or legal staff to address these questions. A crisis is when it is most important for leaders to uphold a vital aspect of their role: making a positive difference in people’s lives.
Doing this requires leaders to acknowledge the personal and professional challenges that employees and their loved ones experience during a crisis. By mid-March 2020, COVID-19 had visited tragedy on countless people by claiming thousands of lives. More than 100,000 cases had been confirmed; many more were being projected. The pandemic had also triggered powerful second-order effects. Governments instituted travel bans and quarantine requirements, which are important for safeguarding public health but can also keep people from aiding relatives and friends or seeking comfort in community groups or places of worship. School closures in many jurisdictions put strain on working parents. Since each crisis will affect people in particular ways, leaders should pay careful attention to how people are struggling and take corresponding measures to support them.
Lastly, it is vital that leaders not only demonstrate empathy but open themselves to empathy from others and remain attentive to their own well-being. As stress, fatigue, and uncertainty build up during a crisis, leaders might find that their abilities to process information, to remain levelheaded, and to exercise good judgment diminish. They will stand a better chance of countering functional declines if they encourage colleagues to express concern—and heed the warnings they are given. Investing time in their well-being will enable leaders to sustain their effectiveness over the weeks and months that a crisis can entail.
Communicating effectively: Maintain transparency and provide frequent updates
Crisis communications from leaders often hit the wrong notes. Time and again, we see leaders taking an overconfident, upbeat tone in the early stages of a crisis—and raising stakeholders’ suspicions about what leaders know and how well they are handling the crisis. Authority figures are also prone to suspend announcements for long stretches while they wait for more facts to emerge and decisions to be made.
Neither approach is reassuring. As Amy Edmondson recently wrote, “Transparency is ‘job one’ for leaders in a crisis. Be clear what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are doing to learn more.”7 Thoughtful, frequent communication shows that leaders are following the situation and adjusting their responses as they learn more. This helps them reassure stakeholders that they are confronting the crisis. Leaders should take special care to see that each audience’s concerns, questions, and interests are addressed. Having members of the crisis-response team speak firsthand about what they are doing can be particularly effective.
Communications shouldn’t stop once the crisis has passed. Offering an optimistic, realistic outlook can have a powerful effect on employees and other stakeholders, inspiring them to support the company’s recovery.
The coronavirus pandemic is testing the leaders of companies and organizations in every sector around the world. Its consequences could last for longer and present greater difficulties than anyone anticipates. The prolonged uncertainty is all the more reason for leaders to embrace the practices described in this article. Those who do will help establish or reinforce behaviors and values that can support their organizations and communities during this crisis, however long it continues, and prepare them well for the next large-scale challenge.
COVID-19’s speed and scale breed uncertainty and emotional disruption. How organizations communicate about it can create clarity, build resilience, and catalyze positive change.
Crises come in different intensities. As a “landscape scale” event,1 the coronavirus has created great uncertainty, elevated stress and anxiety, and prompted tunnel vision, in which people focus only on the present rather than toward the future. During such a crisis, when information is unavailable or inconsistent, and when people feel unsure about what they know (or anyone knows), behavioral science points to an increased human desire for transparency, guidance, and making sense out of what has happened.
At such times, a leader’s words and actions can help keep people safe, help them adjust and cope emotionally, and finally, help them put their experience into context—and draw meaning from it.
But as this crisis leaps from life-and-death direction on public health and workplace safety to existential matters of business continuity, job loss, and radically different ways of working, an end point may not be apparent. While some may already be seeking meaning from the crisis and moving into the “next normal,” others, feeling rising uncertainty and worried about the future, may not yet be ready for hope.
COVID-19’s parallel unfolding crises present leaders with infinitely complicated challenges and no easy answers. Tough trade-offs abound, and with them, tough decisions about communicating complex issues to diverse audiences. Never have executives been put under such an intense spotlight by a skeptical public gauging the care, authenticity, and purpose that companies demonstrate. Leaders lack a clear playbook to quickly connect with rattled employees and communities about immediate matters of great importance, much less reassure them as they ponder the future.
Against this frenzied backdrop, it would be easy for leaders to reflexively plunge into the maelstrom of social-media misinformation, copy what others are doing, or seek big, one-off, bold gestures. It is also true that crises can produce great leaders and communicators, those whose words and actions comfort in the present, restore faith in the long term, and are remembered long after the crisis has been quelled.
So we counsel this: pause, take a breath. The good news is that the fundamental tools of effective communication still work. Define and point to long-term goals, listen to and understand your stakeholders, and create openings for dialogue. Be proactive. But don’t stop there. In this crisis leaders can draw on a wealth of research, precedent, and experience to build organizational resilience through an extended period of uncertainty, and even turn a crisis into a catalyst for positive change. Superior crisis communicators tend to do five things well:
Give people what they need, when they need it. People’s information needs evolve in a crisis. So should a good communicator’s messaging. Different forms of information can help listeners to stay safe, cope mentally, and connect to a deeper sense of purpose and stability.
Communicate clearly, simply, frequently. A crisis limits people’s capacity to absorb information in the early days. Focus on keeping listeners safe and healthy. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.
Choose candor over charisma. Trust is never more important than in a crisis. Be honest about where things stand, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, and maintain transparency to build loyalty and lead more effectively.
Revitalize resilience. As the health crisis metastasizes into an economic crisis, accentuate the positive and strengthen communal bonds to restore confidence.
Distill meaning from chaos. The crisis will end. Help people make sense of all that has happened. Establish a clear vision, or mantra, for how the organization and its people will emerge.
Give people what they need, when they need it
Every crisis has a life cycle, and emotional states and needs vary with the cycle’s stages. In a recent article, our colleagues framed the COVID-19 crisis in five stages: resolve, resilience, return, reimagination, and reform. These stages span the crisis of today to the next normal that will emerge after COVID-19 has been controlled. The duration of each stage may vary based on geographic and industry context, and organizations may find themselves operating in more than one stage simultaneously (exhibit).
With such variation in mind, communicators should be thoughtful about what matters most in the given moment.
Every crisis has a life cycle, and emotional states and needs vary with the cycle’s stages.
In a crisis’s early stages, communicators must provide instructing information to encourage calm; how to stay safe is fundamental. In COVID-19, governments and major media outlets first focused on clear, simple instructions about physical distancing and “lockdown” guidelines. Companies focused on new operational rules regarding time off, overtime, and operational changes.
As people begin to follow safety instructions, communication can shift to a focus on adjusting to change and uncertainty. Asia, where COVID-19 struck early, offers some helpful insights. One survey in China, for example, showed that a marked decline in people’s energy during the early stages of the epidemic reversed as they acclimated to increased anxiety and the blurring of work- and home-life boundaries.2 Savvy communications directors responded by evolving their messaging from health basics to business recovery.
Finally, as the crisis’s end comes into view, ramp up internalizing information to help people make sense of the crisis and its impact. For the current public-health crisis, it’s still too early to glean the shape of this broader perspective, although “silver lining” articles about families drawing closer together and other topics have been making their way into the media.
Want to know what people need? Ask them.
The COVID-19 outbreak is a complex crisis made up of multiple trigger points—health, policy, the economy—and leaders should tailor their communications to the stage of the crisis their stakeholders are experiencing, and to what people need most in the moment (see sidebar, “Want to know what people need? Ask them”).3 Scenario planning becomes important to help anticipate where employees and communities may be in dealing with the crisis, and the appropriate messaging that can help them as the crisis unfolds.
Communicate clearly, simply, frequently
At a crisis’s onset, audience attention is finite; new, disruptive inputs overwhelm a person’s ability to process information. High levels of uncertainty, perceived threats, and fear can even lead to “cognitive freezing.”4 Put simply: the more complicated, abstract, or extraneous information is right now, the more difficult it will be for people to process it.
Leaders may be inclined to defer to governments and media outlets for clear and simple safety instructions. Don’t. Employers often underestimate how much their employees depend on them as trusted sources. When public-relations firm Edelman asked workers in ten countries what they considered the most credible source of information about the coronavirus, 63 percent of respondents said that they would believe information about the virus from their employer, versus 58 percent that trusted government websites or 51 percent that trusted the traditional media.
To convey crucial information to employees, keep messages simple, to the point, and actionable. Walmart published its 6-20-100 guidance: stand six feet away to maintain a safe physical distance, take 20 seconds for good hand washing, consider a body temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit the signal to stay home from public activity. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield focused on personal care in reassuring employees stressed over work. “We got this,” he said. “Take care of yourselves, take care of your families, be a good partner.”
When communicating clear, simple messages, framing and frequency matter:
Dos, not don’ts. People tend to pay more attention to positively framed information; negative information can erode trust. Frame instructions as “dos” (best practices and benefits) rather than “don’ts” (what people shouldn’t do, or debunking myths).7 In previous epidemic outbreaks, such as Zika, yellow fever, and West Nile virus, research shows that interventions highlighting best practices were more effective than those focused on countering misinformation or conspiracies.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. Communicators regularly underestimate how frequently messages must be repeated and reinforced. In a health crisis, repetition becomes even more critical: one study showed that an audience needs to hear a health-risk-related message nine to 21 times to maximize its perception of that risk.8 Fortunately, employee appetite for regular, trusted information from employers during COVID-19 is high. In one study, some 63 percent asked for daily updates and 20 percent wanted communications several times a day.9 So, establish a steady cadence, repeat the same messages frequently, and try mantras, rhyming, and alliteration to improve message “stickiness.”
The CEO doesn’t have to be the chief delivery officer. During a crisis, it’s best if the message comes from the person viewed as an authority on the subject. For business continuity, that person may well be the CEO. But for other topics, people may prefer to hear from a health expert, the leader of the organization’s crisis-response team, or even their own manager. Provide common talking points for all leaders and empower communication—via town halls, through email, text messaging or internal social media platforms.
Choose candor over charisma
After establishing baseline safety requirements, leaders must help individuals cope emotionally with the trauma of sudden change and adjustment to a new, postcrisis normal. (COVID-19 threats to health and safety are likely to linger for some time, so new messages should be layered atop regular safety reminders.)
Leaders trying to help employees adjust after trauma need a reservoir of trust. Those who fail to build trust quickly in crises lose their employees’ confidence. People expect credible and relevant information; when stakeholders believe they are being misled or that risks are being downplayed, they lose confidence. To build trust, leaders should do the following:
Focus on facts—without sugar coating. Differentiate clearly between what is known and unknown, and don’t minimize or speculate. In crises like the one we’re facing now, “the facts” may include bad news about the state of the organization or changes that will be painful for people. Research shows that some leaders, used to feeling highly effective and in control, avoid acknowledging uncertainty and bad news because they find it stressful or guilt inducing, or they fear negative reactions from an audience.10 But unfounded optimism can backfire. In 1990, during the United Kingdom’s mad-cow-disease crisis, a government minister fed his daughter a hamburger in front of TV cameras and declared that British beef had never been safer, despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than boost morale, this effort only further eroded public trust in the government’s response.
When you are not able to communicate with certainty—for example, about when physical distancing and travel restrictions will be lifted—avoid hard and fast estimates (for example, “There’s a 60 percent chance that we’ll be back to normal by September.”). Instead, be explicit that you’re sharing an opinion, acknowledge uncertainty, and give the criteria you will use to determine a course of action (“It’s my hope that we are back online in the fall; however, that is far from certain. We will be following government guidance when making decisions for our business.”)
Be transparent. Transparency builds trust. Research shows that transparent operations improve perceptions of trust and that communicators perceived to have good intentions are more likely to be trusted, even if their decisions ultimately turn out to be wrong. Give people a behind-the-scenes view of the different options you are considering. For example, many governments, including Canada and the Netherlands, have begun publishing extended timelines during which protective measures will be in place. Whether or not those timelines hold true, such difficult messages to deliver ultimately serve to build greater trust among listeners.
Involve your audience in decision making. When making operational decisions, involve stakeholders. For example, many universities have informed students that commencement this year will not take place as planned. Rather than canceling commencement outright, several universities have instead used short, simple communication to elicit students’ ideas for staging commencement differently, preserving some of commencement’s positive energy.
Demonstrate vulnerability. Judiciously share your own feelings and acknowledge the personal effects of emotional turmoil. Research shows that demonstrating vulnerability, such as grief over shared losses or authentic feelings about the impact of changes on employees, can help build trust.
Mind what you model. What you do matters as much as what you say in building trust, and scrutiny of leaders’ actions is magnified during a crisis. Recently, some leaders have been called out for setting “do as I say, not as I do” examples. Scotland’s chief medical officer resigned after public uproar when she was caught visiting her second home during lockdown. Hosting a videoconference from the office might seem like a good way to project normalcy—but won’t for those attending who are locked down at home.
As the COVID-19 health crisis turns into a lingering financial and economic crisis, uncertainty and doubt will challenge efforts to restore business confidence. Leaders will face a critical period in which they will need to instill resilience in people and tap sources of hope, trust, and optimism in order to unlock creativity and build momentum for the future. Channeling positive sentiments and encouraging a sense of broader community will be critical elements in building that momentum.
Celebrate the positives. Sharing positive stories and creating uplifting moments are important building blocks in reigniting resilient spirits. It may seem counterintuitive, but often this approach begins by acknowledging loss. Denying or averting loss can make it more likely that people focus on negatives, especially in times of crisis. However, it is possible to counterbalance the negative effects of stress and loss by channeling positive emotions.
Denying or averting loss can make it more likely that people focus on negatives, especially in times of crisis.
Highlight how your organization is responding to the crisis with stories about how people are adapting to new ways of working. Or recount how your organization is contributing to the global COVID-19 response. Show appreciation for the challenges people face. For example, the “Clap for our carers” movement in the United Kingdom is a public display of appreciation for the National Health Service (NHS), which is now being replicated every night at 7 p.m. in New York City. Many companies have posted videos on social media thanking their employees. Especially important is expressing gratitude to those in the organization who are leading frontline responses or who face threats to their safety. In addition to acknowledging them publicly, having one-on-one conversations with them or sending personal thank-you notes can go a long way toward making people feel part of something important and meaningful, which in turn helps build resilience.
Help people to help. Helping others is a great way to improve well-being and reduce stress.13 Amid crisis, people look for ways to contribute. For example, following the 9/11 attacks, Dell connected with employees by channeling their desire to offer help. Service and response teams worked around the clock, drawing on Dell’s customer purchase records, to offer customers immediate assistance in replacing lost computers and equipment. Such steps helped employees struggling with grief and anger to focus on others, give back, and link the customer’s experience to everyday work.
Build community. It’s important to rebuild a common social identity and a sense of belonging based on shared values, norms, and habits.14 Research suggests that social bonds grow stronger during times of great uncertainty. Leaders encourage people to come together under common values of mutual support and achievement. Queen Elizabeth II has called upon all Britons to unify and identify—in discipline, resolve, and fellowship—in the face of COVID-19. “The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future,” she said.
Any effort to create a shared social identity must be grounded in a sense of support for others. Practical ways to encourage this when people are working remotely include book clubs, pub quizzes, happy hours, exercise classes, chat groups, competitions, and so on. Complement this kind of broad outreach with one-to-one communication via phone, email, or video to individuals or small teams. Arrange a virtual breakfast, an end-of-week celebration, or even video “tours” of each other’s workspaces.
Out of chaos, meaning
As people adapt, effective leaders increasingly focus on helping people to make sense of events.16 The search for meaning is intrinsic to recovery from trauma and crisis. For many, the workplace is a powerful source of identity and meaning. Research has shown that meaning and associated well-being can explain up to 25 percent of performance.17 Leaders can shape a meaningful story for the organization and help people build their own stories, invoking common culture and values as touchstones for healing and strength. In their messaging, they underscore a shared sense of purpose, point to how the organization can rally at a generation-defining moment, and indicate new paths to the future.
Leaders can take the following steps to help people move from making sense of events to deriving meaning from them:
Set clear goals and ‘walk the talk.’ Early on, be clear about what your organization will achieve during this crisis. Set a memorable “mantra”—the two or three simple goals around which people should rally. Then take actions to realize those goals, because you communicate by what you do as much as by what you say. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, Best Buy has defined a dual goal to protect employees while serving customers who rely on the company for increasingly vital technology. The company has made clear that employees should only work when healthy, and that those who feel sick should stay at home, with pay. US stores have instituted “contactless” curbside service or free doorstep delivery.
Connect to a deeper sense of purpose. Explore ways to connect the disruption employees face to something bigger. For some organizations, this may dovetail with the goals of an ongoing transformation, such as serving customers in new ways. For others, meaning can be found in a deeper, more collective sense of purpose or mission. For example, the chief surgeon at one New York hospital closed an all-staff memo by reminding people that “[patients] survive because we don’t give up.”19 In the United Kingdom, the government appeals to strong national sentiments with the simple message: “Stay home, protect the NHS [National Health Service], save lives.”
Foster organizational dialogue. While it’s important to shape a story of meaning for your organization, it’s equally important to create a space where others can do the same for themselves. Ask people what conclusions they are drawing from this crisis and listen deeply. Some possible questions: Have there been unexpected positive outcomes of this crisis for you? What changes have you made that you would like to keep once the crisis has ended?
The immediacy and uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis tempts leaders to “shoot from the hip” in communicating with anxious stakeholders or making strategic moves. Effective communicators will take a deep breath and remember the basics while acknowledging what is unique about this moment. Relying on these practices will help team members stay safe and infuse understanding and meaning in communities, helping to carry the organization through the pandemic with a renewed sense of purpose and trust.
The spread of coronavirus is leaving a wide swath of economic damage in its wake. Our initial analysis, conducted at the beginning of April, examined the impact at the state, national, and occupational level. We estimated that in the shutdown phase alone, up to 53 million US jobs were vulnerable—a term we use to encompass permanent layoffs, temporary furloughs, or reductions in hours and pay.
Since then, demand shocks have been reverberating through all sectors. Now that pandemic-related unemployment claims have been pouring in for several weeks, the losses associated with the initial shutdown are cascading into knock-on effects. While leisure and hospitality accounted for most of the earliest layoffs and furloughs, the share from industries such as retail trade, manufacturing, nonessential healthcare, and professional services has been growing. We estimate that up to 57 million US jobs are now vulnerable, including more and more white-collar positions. By way of context, some 59 million jobs are at risk in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland, which have a considerably larger population.
We find significant overlap between the workers who are vulnerable in the current downturn and those who hold jobs susceptible to automation in the future. In addition to the effects of technology, the crisis itself may create lasting changes in consumer behavior and health protocols. To put vulnerable workers on more promising and sustainable paths, the US response should incorporate a longer-term view about the resulting occupational shifts and the development of skills.
Decisive action is critical. After every US recession since 1991, it has taken progressively longer for jobs to reappear. The United States did not regain the number of jobs it lost in the Great Recession until 2014. Given the depths of the current downturn, the country cannot afford to let history repeat itself—and it’s possible to make choices that will head off that outcome. But responding to the twin challenges of a public-health crisis and an economic downturn may require a new playbook, rapid innovation, learning, and adaptation.
More than 26 million Americans have applied for unemployment, but twice that number are vulnerable
About one in six US workers—more than 26 million Americans—filed for unemployment in the five weeks ending April 18. That number erases all of the net job gains since the Great Recession.
In the five weeks from March 15 to April 18, initial unemployment claims surged across the country. Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas each had more than a million residents filing for benefits; in California, the number surpassed three million. Viewing these numbers as a share of the total workforce illustrates the magnitude of the downturn (Exhibit 1). In five states—Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—a quarter or more of the workforce has applied for unemployment benefits.
Unemployment claims offer only a partial picture of workforce dislocations. Our analysis shows that more than twice as many workers are vulnerable to reduced hours, pay cuts, and temporary unpaid leave. Moreover, unemployment claims will undoubtedly rise in the weeks ahead as states work through a backlog of claims and more businesses that initially tried to maintain payrolls resort to furloughs and layoffs.
Job losses are rippling through multiple industries and occupations
An analysis of state-level data on initial unemployment claims shows that the earliest wave of job losses, in mid-March, disproportionately hit food service, entertainment, and accommodations. Subsequent weeks have seen a sharp pullback in consumer spending in most categories, leading to job losses in retail, business services, manufacturing, and non-essential healthcare (Exhibit 2).
Examining the week-by-week initial unemployment claims in specific states illustrates this pattern. In New York State, for example, most claims filed for the week ending March 21 came from leisure and hospitality, which accounts for just 10 percent of the state’s workforce. In later weeks, an increasing number of claims came from retail as well as professional and business services. In Michigan, leisure and hospitality accounted for 35 percent of the claims filed in the week ending March 21 but 12 percent in the week ending March 28. Meanwhile, the share from the manufacturing sector tripled.
Looking ahead, the loss of employment will likely continue to cascade. Strained budgets are beginning to force state and local governments to cut public-sector jobs. City governments from Cincinnati to Santa Barbara are already resorting to furloughs and layoffs. A drop in charitable giving is hitting nonprofits, and colleges are anticipating cutbacks. Consumers have been migrating to digital banking during the shutdown, so fewer bank employees may be needed in retail branches.
Online job postings provide an early gauge of hiring trends in specific occupations. Data from Emsi, which consolidates data from more than 100,000 websites, show that job postings have declined by roughly one million since February 2020—a drop of 16 percent.1 The biggest percentage decline came in postings for oil and gas operators (a drop of 56 percent), followed by food-machine operators, bakers, bellhops, auto-insurance appraisers, and parking-lot attendants (all of which declined by roughly 40 percent).
By contrast, demand is spiking for some roles. Translators saw the greatest increase as hospitals added interpreters to treat non-English-speaking COVID-19 patients. Other occupations experiencing a surge in hiring include respiratory therapists, general practitioners, psychiatrists, and epidemiologists (Exhibit 3).
Low-wage, part-time, and minority workers are the most likely to hold vulnerable jobs
While Americans of all backgrounds are feeling the economic pain, many of the newly unemployed in early March were part-time workers, young people, minorities, and women (Exhibit 4).
Our initial analysis, published in early April, found that 86 percent of jobs that the pandemic has made vulnerable paid less than $40,000 a year. Part-time workers were disproportionately represented. But as demand has fallen in multiple industries, growing numbers of full-time and white-collar jobs are being affected. Our updated model finds that as of mid-April, 16 percent of workers earning more than $70,000 a year have become vulnerable (Exhibit 5). However, almost three-quarters of all vulnerable workers earn less than $40,000 a year.
Education: Workers without bachelor’s degrees are nearly twice as likely to hold vulnerable jobs. In The Jeeranont’s research on automation in the US labor market, educational attainment emerged as the strongest demographic predictor of future displacement risk. Today the pandemic has put the educational divide in stark relief. Workers without bachelor’s degrees are twice as likely to hold jobs we classify as vulnerable. They account for 58 percent of the US workforce but 82 percent of all vulnerable jobs.
Race: Minorities are more likely to hold vulnerable jobs, especially in large cities. The March 14 household survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that racial minorities make up 20 percent of the labor force but 25 percent of the newly unemployed. This disparity may in part result from a difference in the ability to work from home. White workers are 37 percent more likely than their nonwhite counterparts to hold jobs that can be performed remotely.
Race is an especially strong predictor of job vulnerability in many large cities where the people staffing retail shops, bars, and restaurants are disproportionately nonwhite. Nonwhite workers are 28 percent more likely than white workers to hold vulnerable jobs in Honolulu, 29 percent more likely in Albuquerque, and 30 percent in Washington, DC.
Age: Younger workers are 35 percent more likely to hold vulnerable jobs. March BLS household survey data show that younger workers were especially likely to be let go by employers. Workers under the age of 35 make up 36 percent of the US labor force but 49 percent of the newly unemployed. In part, this may reflect their greater propensity to hold part-time jobs and their lack of seniority. The generation that first entered the job market in the aftermath of the Great Recession is now going through its second “once in a lifetime” downturn.
Gender: Women sustained a majority of the initial job losses, but that may change going forward. The earliest job losses have hit women harder than men. March enterprise survey data from the BLS found that women made up 59 percent of the initial jobs lost.4 This occurred in part because they account for just under two-thirds of employment in leisure and hospitality, retail, education, and health—areas that accounted for 80 percent of the job losses from February 15 to March 14.
Many women were also vulnerable by virtue of their part-time status (Exhibit 6).6 Women hold 63 percent of all part-time jobs, which are typically the first to be cut in any downturn. Part-time workers accounted for only 18 percent of the workforce in February but 46 percent of net new unemployment claims in March.
However, the gender disparity in initial job losses may rebalance over time. Our model finds that men are 10 percent more likely than women to hold vulnerable jobs. Job losses were more limited in male-dominated sectors such as construction and manufacturing in March, but they may be harder hit as time goes on. These two sectors combined account for as many vulnerable jobs as retail.
Employers and governments have multiple issues to solve
The ultimate economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be partially determined by how effectively policy makers and business leaders can mitigate structural damage to the economy while containing the virus. While the situation is evolving rapidly, it is clear that supporting the workers and businesses that are losing income during the initial lockdown is a priority. Policy makers have created significant fiscal-relief programs to support workers and businesses; the challenge now is to operationalize those measures. But in this highly fluid environment, the public and private sectors alike will need to adapt and innovate, learn what works and what doesn’t, and adjust as they go.
The issues facing companies
One of the lessons of the last downturn is that completely severing the relationship between employers and employees tends to lengthen unemployment. To the extent that companies can implement reduced hours, temporary furloughs, or creative job-sharing and redeployment programs instead of outright layoffs, the entire economy will be better positioned for a faster and stronger recovery. The Payroll Protection Program, for example, is meant to cover payroll costs so that small businesses can keep workers employed.
When furloughs and layoffs are unavoidable, employers can take steps to help the newly unemployed land on their feet. Participating in digital platforms can help furloughed and laid-off workers connect with organizations that need temporary help to meet surging demand. Some companies that are downsizing are already forming direct partnerships with organizations that are hiring to help make these workforce transitions faster and more seamless. Furloughs can also provide a window, through online training, for employees to develop the skills that employers envision needing in the future.
Many businesses have rapidly shifted to remote work. But as schools around the nation shut down, working mothers have had to take on more child care. In addition to federally mandated paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, companies can offer greater flexibility to support parents working from home. To prevent a worsening of gender disparities, it will be important for companies to take parenting responsibilities into account in the current environment.
As companies look ahead to an eventual reopening, they are thinking about how to operate safely, given the need to prevent wider outbreaks and build consumer confidence. This may involve reconfiguring shared office spaces, adding plexiglass screens between customers and frontline workers, acquiring adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), creating new health protocols, or shifting more work online. Companies that serve the public will have to make adjustments to improve the comfort level of consumers, such as limiting density in commercial spaces, conducting temperature checks, and using contactless payment and pickup methods. The current crisis is forcing innovation on the fly, so employers can also reimagine workplaces and workflows.
The issues facing policy makers
The deluge of unemployment claims has created significant delays for people who urgently need money in their pockets. A number of states have reduced the backlog by adding staff or upgrading digital processing. If shutdowns need to be prolonged to protect public health, policy makers may need to consider extending this lifeline. Although freelancers and gig workers are now eligible for unemployment, many have found it difficult to navigate application processes that were not developed with their situations in mind. States including Massachusetts are trying to address this problem by setting up portals specifically for independent workers.
To supplement federal loan programs, many states are offering small businesses no- or low-interest emergency bridge loans or grants. Similar programs have been rolled out at the city level in places such as Chicago, Oklahoma City, and San Francisco. A number of cities and states have paused both residential and commercial evictions. California’s state government brought together a consortium of major lenders to offer forms of relief such as grace periods on mortgage payments.
State workforce agencies may also choose to design new education and training programs with the specific goal of helping unemployed workers without college degrees increase their employability when the economy reopens—and for the longer term as well. This could involve courses for high-school-equivalency certificates, remedial courses in literacy and numeracy, and online community-college programs that teach specialized skills required for high-demand jobs (such as nursing).
To reopen economies safely, government officials can work collaboratively with employers to set standards for safe workplaces and consumer protocols, as well as issues such as acquiring enough PPE for industries to operate. Communities need large-scale systems for testing and contact tracing. Addressing such pandemic-related needs can create work for unemployed Americans. California is taking a similar approach with a new program that will use funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay restaurants to provide home-meal deliveries to seniors in need. Public health and economic recovery are intertwined, and they can be addressed in tandem.
The pandemic is accelerating structural shifts in the economy that were already underway, such as using digital channels to reach consumers, automating operations, and allowing people to work remotely from home. Moreover, some shifts in consumer behavior and demand for new types of work may outlast the current public health crisis. Preparing for the “future of work” has gone from a distant hypothetical to a very immediate priority. Tens of millions of workers need support not only to get through today’s challenges but also to put themselves on a better footing for the future. In the months ahead, we will continue with our ongoing research to track these trends.
What are you feeling?
It is the simplest of questions, but in the passing of just a few brief months it has left countless people on this planet stammering for an answer. The disorienting effects of COVID-19 on our daily lives, on global health, and on economic activity have so emotionally overwhelmed people that forming a response to even such an innocent query triggers an overload that stymies articulation. No wonder that in a recent survey almost half of respondents stated that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.
A “landscape-scale crisis” such as COVID-19 strips leadership back to its most fundamental element: making a positive difference in people’s lives. As our research has outlined, an imperative for leaders in such times is to demonstrate compassionate leadership and to make dealing with the unfolding human tragedy the first priority.
Numerous studies show that in a business-as-usual environment, compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement by their teams.3 However, compassion becomes especially critical during a crisis.4 While a crisis’s early days might seem like the time for leaders to put their head down and exhibit control, it is just as critical to tune in to personal fears and anxieties so as to be able to turn outward to help employees and colleagues grapple with their own reactions. This isn’t easy, but this introspection and projection of care is critical for connecting and dealing with people’s immediate needs and setting the stage for business recovery.
The psychological and business cost of landscape-scale crises
A crisis can trigger a range of physiological and psychological responses that include heightened sensitivity and distress. Landscape-scale crises can also create mass-scale trauma responses, as collective fears and existential threats disrupt equilibrium and social isolation weakens bonds that normally provide emotional support. Collective panic can prompt a “flight and affiliation” response in which people seek familiar places and contacts.5 Earlier traumas resurface. The lost sense of security and normalcy can trigger grief, and with it feelings of shock, denial, anger, and depression.
In such circumstances demonstrating highly visible and caring leadership becomes even more important. Paradoxically, this is also when leaders are predisposed to busy themselves with urgent meetings and operational issues, triggered in part by the situation and exacerbated by their own underlying fears of vulnerability that shift them toward self-preservation and a desire to maintain control.
The inability to deal with stress and trauma can exact a human toll on individuals and portend dire consequences for organizations. An organization mired in collective fear and focused on control will not unleash the creativity and innovation necessary to navigate a crisis and emerge healthy on the other side.
We find that four qualities can mitigate these natural tendencies and help leaders find the compassionate voice to manage in crisis and shepherd their organization into a postcrisis next normal. Start by creating space to attain a keener awareness of what is going on within and around you. Be bold in exhibiting vulnerability by lowering your guard and confronting what is unfolding. Demonstrate empathy to better tap the emotions others are feeling, and act with compassion to make individuals and groups feel genuinely cared for. Cultivate these qualities in a balanced way by first tuning inward to understand and integrate your own emotions and fears, and then turning outward to alleviate pain, support others, and, over time, enable people and the business to recover.
As a crisis strikes, a leader’s reflex is typically to first stabilize the threat. This includes setting up a crisis-response infrastructure, such as a network of teams, elevating the right leaders into critical roles, and developing scenarios to anticipate the crisis’s evolution. At the same time, it is critical to attend to yourself and your organization. Once the crisis’s initial shock has been absorbed, it’s essential to accept and acknowledge the reactive tendencies that unfold within ourselves and others, and to care for them.
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To thoughtfully and skillfully recognize and embrace the emotions and reactions to trauma that might surface, a compassionate leader must allow them to be felt.7 Unless we recognize our own natural human response to a crisis and process these strong emotions, we won’t have the capacity to grasp these reactions from others we seek to help. In other words, leaders must first relate to and help themselves before they can do the same for others.
Some practices can help:
Uncover and integrate what you feel
A bias toward control may be a natural response to crisis, but it risks shutting off awareness of one’s own and others’ feelings and emotional needs. A first step to effectively tune inward is to create time and space for self-connection and self-awareness.
A first step to effectively tune inward is to create time and space for self-connection and self-awareness.
A simple practice during these times is to engage in deep and intentional breathing. Deep breathing slows the heart rate and restores the body to a calmer and composed state. Even a few deep breaths can suffice. Take a moment for deep breathing when you notice rising fear or stress, and likewise before making important decisions. Adopt daily rituals for restoration, deep breathing and emotional self-connection by committing to a recurring time of day and specific location, for example, first thing in the morning. Silence your phone to stifle distraction.
You may notice bodily sensations and feel emotions more acutely. Try to name these feelings. Many leaders have “learned” to suppress emotions on the job and may be unaccustomed to noticing and articulating feelings in a nuanced way. But doing so can help to internalize and experience more fully what is going on and surface the strong emotions that naturally result from crisis. This emotional self-contact and regulation lays a foundation for renewal and healing. By intentionally pausing activity flow and restoring contact with our inner resources you create more room to make grounded choices, break habits of mind and behavior, and bring genuine presence to the workday’s complex tasks and interactions.
Practice gratitude daily
Another simple practice is to share a sense of gratitude. Like getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating well to counter stress and fatigue, gratitude has been shown to improve mental health, renew energy and hope, and encourage self-improvement.
Consider three ways to cultivate a daily gratitude practice:
Keep a gratitude journal. Spend five minutes each day writing down three things that you’re grateful for in your life right now.
Write a gratitude letter to someone. Sending the letter is optional. The mere act of putting positive thoughts on paper can help shift your cognitive processes positively.
Commit to expressing gratitude to someone at least once a day.
Open yourself to others’ expressions of care
Finally, open yourself up to others’ empathy and compassion. Sharing your emotions in response to caring words and acts takes vulnerability. But it will help maintain your own emotional stability and build up a close support network that is essential, especially during turbulent times.
Leaders who experience anxiety and emotional blockages may find it helpful to talk to others about their experiences. As with deep breathing, merely listing emotions can help regulate nervous systems, ease anxiety and tension, and allow individuals to activate their logical thought processes.9 Sharing deeper feelings with those a leader trusts can help to process and overcome blockages and lay the foundation for cultivating authenticity, trust, and compassionate leadership as the leader turns outward to connect with the broader organization.
Turning outward to connect with others
Tuning into yourself will improve your ability to listen to others, alleviate their fear and anxiety, and enable them to move forward. Awareness of what others are feeling, and role modeling vulnerability, empathy, and compassion during a crisis has been shown to lower stress and limit the adverse physical symptoms of team members, while also improving team goal achievement and productivity.
As the crisis evolves,11 compassionate leadership entails bringing a community together so that it can move forward in the following ways:
Develop perspective, derive meaning
Communities need moments to breathe, and to give a name to what they are experiencing before they can create meaning from it as they move on. Leaders can set the tone for such healing by expressing vulnerability and sharing personal fears, concerns, and uncertainties. Another simple practice is acknowledging that no leader has all the answers. Authenticity is paramount, lest the organization pick up on the dissonance between the leader’s words and their feelings and tune out. Skepticism and loss of credibility will follow.12 Maintain a tempered and deliberate tone and remain grounded even as you reserve opportunities for others to express their emotions.
When such vulnerability is present others will have space to share their experiences as well. That kind of chemistry will make it easier to establish this level of openness in day-to-day interactions.
When people exhibit fear and a desire for protection and self-preservation, compassionate leaders validate those feelings as normal. Again, naming emotions reduces tension and opens the door to addressing them. Provide safe workplace forums for stakeholders to express emotions. It will help individuals move past pain, stress, and anxiety, and refocus on their work and the organization’s mission.
A leader’s guide: Communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19
For example, during the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, New York City Fire Department Chief Joseph Pfeifer recalls another chief climbing atop a charred firetruck and motioning firefighters to gather around it. “I want you to take off your helmets,” the chief said. Incredulous looks raced through the group—the helmet was a part of these first responders’ identity, and removing it normally only occurred at a shift’s end. But the chief continued: “We lost a lot of people today. This calls for a moment of silence.”
The simple gesture put voice to what the firefighters were feeling. When the chief spoke again, he said, “Let’s put our helmets back on. We have more lives to save.” Pfeifer remembers the meeting ending with the group even more deeply aligned around their mission.
Stepping back to gain perspective is a practice as useful for organizations as it is for individuals. Once people have had a chance to share their raw emotional experience and check in with one another on their circumstances and losses, the ability to then tap into the generosity, wisdom, and strength of the team as a whole can help provide vision and resources to manage and perhaps ease or temper people’s sense of risk and uncertainty.
Foster belonging and inclusion
Being part of one and the same organization is especially important in crises that can resurface past traumas. People can often feel that they are in the same storm with others yet not feel that they are in the same boat.
Leaders play a crucial role in making people feel heard and included, to enable all individuals to freely express themselves, foster an environment of psychological safety in which all feel joined together in the face of crisis. One way is to receive people with unconditional positive regard, withholding judgment and welcoming diversity of self-expression. This gesture of solidarity is why some leaders wear the familiar clothing or uniforms or equipment of communities hard hit by adversity. A true feeling of inclusivity, trust, and belonging among coworkers helps reduce mental health issues and boosts worker commitment.
After the 2019 attacks on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, for example, the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, wore a hijab as she walked throughout the community, comforting people and hugging victims’ family members. Her decision to put on the religiously symbolic garment of those targeted sent a unifying message that all were part of the same community.
Take care of people
We mirror the behaviors of those around us,14 and leaders are uniquely positioned to serve as influential role models for compassionate acts and demonstrating care for people’s basic needs. Showing interest in employees’ feelings can be key to recovery, especially if such acts are visible and leaders cascade them throughout the organization.15 Checking in on individuals and their families, expressing gratitude either with words or small tokens of appreciation, setting up a company-wide thank-a-thon, or publicly recognizing compassionate acts taken by others are all gestures leaders can take to show care for those around them. Leaders should also encourage and raise the profile of compassionate acts on the part of employees to further foster a mutually supportive community.
Back up these acts with support. Practical gestures include extended leave, additional sick days, and expanded health coverage. It is difficult to ask employees preoccupied with their basic needs to focus on productivity. Alleviating these basic concerns for people will free up their capacity to keep contributing to your organization’s purpose and strategic objectives.
Reimagine a postcrisis next normal
In an environment in which people share grief, anxieties, and fears, demonstrate vulnerability and come together as one community, leaders have a great opportunity to foster an organizational culture filled with mutual acceptance, intimacy, and hope.
The goal is to refocus individuals away from trauma and toward a better future for themselves and the business as well.
They can also channel this energy to reimagining the organization. Pairing vulnerability with confidence in the next normal is critical to help people transition from states of anger or denial into working together to build a desirable future. Leaders are uniquely positioned to ignite hope and create the image of a future organization people are excited to be a part of.
Actively engage in open dialogue with various stakeholders to share their diagnoses of the crisis and their prognoses of how to emerge from it into a reimagined next normal. Encourage others to do the same. Sharing individual experiences and perspectives not only paves the way toward collective sensemaking,17 but also reignites creative energy among employees. The goal is to refocus individuals away from trauma and toward a better future for themselves and the business as well.
This can be accomplished by reconnecting people to their shared organizational values, identity, and purpose. In town halls and group conversations leaders should pose questions about what the organization stands for, as well as what it should continue to do or stop doing in the future (see sidebar, “How to explore an organization’s past, present, and future”).
Case in point: after JetBlue suffered an operational crisis as snowstorm and internet issues stranded thousands of customers and employees on Valentine’s Day in 2007, David Neeleman, the chief executive at the time, used the crisis to launch a complete overhaul of the company’s operations and customer-service approach, including pioneering a customer bill of rights to notify and compensate passengers affected by delays and cancellations.
The overwhelming effects of a crisis strip leadership back to its most fundamental element: making a positive difference in people’s lives. By tuning inward to cultivate awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion, and then turning outward to comfort and address the concerns of stakeholders, leaders can exhibit individual care, build resilience, and position their organizations to positively reimagine a postcrisis future.
From a room called fear to a room called hope: A leadership agenda for troubled times
Leaders can make a difference through personal accountability, caring, and “re-onboarding” of all their people.
Leadership matters most—and is hardest to do well—when people face objective threats, when old ways of working are no longer possible, and when confusion and anxiety abound. These are brutal and relentless facts of organizational life for tens of thousands of leaders who feel heightened responsibility for billions of people as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
We offer a modest agenda to help such leaders. We contend that a leader’s job during the COVID-19 crisis and other trying times is to stop a disaster from turning into catastrophe. Disasters such as earthquakes, storms, pandemics, and financial meltdowns will always be with us and will always harm people and create economic hardship. As sociologist Lowell Juilliard Carr wrote in 1932, “the collapse of the cultural protections” that sometimes follow is what constitutes a catastrophe. The ability to bounce back and move forward evaporates when people freeze up and freak out—and when they lose trust and faith in one another, in leaders, and in rules, laws, and informal social agreements.
Leadership during trying times requires building cultural and psychological protections for employees. One key for creating such safeguards is holding oneself personally accountable for decisions, others’ well-being, and organizational performance. Another is using compassionate words and deeds to dampen the damage inflicted by the crisis at hand and to conserve, fuel, and direct the willpower and energy of the people you depend on and who depend on you. Leaders who do these things well create passageways that help people travel from a room called fear to a room called hope. Skilled leaders also sustain that hope by building cultures that are flexible, that celebrate individuality, and that enable employees to be their best selves at work.
During crises, leaders must make tough choices so that their organizations can survive in the short term and thrive in the long term. Being top dog means it’s your job to make and implement painful decisions such as cost-cutting, layoffs, closings, and sweeping changes in work rules, responsibilities, and strategies. Leaders who delay or avoid necessary decisions put people’s safety at risk, burn through cash, and fail to sell products or provide services that customers want and can buy.
This difficult work usually must be done quickly and on the basis of incomplete information—while facing an onslaught of unpleasant surprises and unhappy people. Whether they deserve it or not, most leaders will endure criticism, second-guessing, and, all too often, mean-spirited and inaccurate gossip. Still, it is their job to clean up the mess.
Making sound decisions under such conditions is mighty difficult—and still insufficient for creating the confidence, hope, and guidance that the people affected by crises crave and need. The ways that you, as a leader, frame and implement decisions is as important as making the right decisions.
The first order of business is to stop fretting over and talking about what you couldn’t know and might have done before the crisis hit, and what you can’t control now. Lousy leaders engage in useless rumination about what might have been and who is to blame, and invent excuses for delaying gut-wrenching but vital actions. Good leaders feel just as troubled. But they realize that things will get worse if they don’t focus on what they know now and can still do to protect people and performance. They know it is irrational to devote energy to past events that are impossible to change or to problems that are impossible to fix at the expense of making feasible and constructive changes.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s responses throughout the COVID-19 crisis, for example, have reflected a dogged and optimistic focus on what his company can do and how his people can keep learning. Nadella has acknowledged that there are many forces that he and others at Microsoft can’t predict or control, and has devoted virtually no attention to blaming or scapegoating people inside or outside the company. His focus instead has been on what he and his colleagues can do to best navigate the pandemic. For example, he has talked about how Microsoft team members need to collaborate effectively and to adopt a growth mindset so that they can keep developing new products, selling existing ones, controlling costs, and refining better practices for remote work. (For more on how leaders can respond to the challenges of the crisis and what comes next, see “Psychological safety, emotional intelligence, and leadership in time of flux.”)
Taking blame for things that have gone wrong helps convince key stakeholders that the leader, rather than feeling helpless or overwhelmed, is battling to move the organization in the right direction despite the harsh conditions.
Nadella also has been fixing his attention on how Microsoft and other organizations can learn as they transition to the “next normal,” treating the interplay between near-term response and medium-term recovery as more of a dial than a switch. The idea is to try different strategies for recovery and to keep learning what works and what doesn’t. For example, while Microsoft’s shift to virtually 100 percent remote work has resulted in impressive productivity gains, Nadella is wary of “overcelebrating” these new ways of working, and worries about “what is lost” by doing all or most work remotely—problems that may become more evident down the road.
The buck stops here
Not only do smart leaders avoid making excuses during crises and focus on the art of the possible, they also know that managing the psychology of credit, blame, and control is a big part of the job too. Being a leader, they realize, means they will receive more blame and credit than they deserve for their organization’s fate. Research suggests that it is often a mistake for leaders to dispute that they have outsize influence over their organization’s performance and reputation. Instead, smart leaders bolster this belief, recognizing that it may help them instill confidence and hope, because it boosts the odds that they will be seen as competent and in control. Taking blame for things that have gone wrong, or might still go awry, also helps convince key stakeholders that the leader, rather than feeling helpless or overwhelmed, is battling to move the organization in the right direction despite the harsh conditions.
Henry Ward, the CEO of financial-services software firm Carta, exemplified this “buck stops here” approach in his recent announcement that 161 employees, 16 percent of the company, would be laid off in response to the COVID-19 crisis. In April 2020, Ward wrote, “If you are one of those affected, it is because I decided it. Your manager did not. They are blameless. If today is your last day, there is only one person to blame and it is me.” Ward made the tough decisions and held himself responsible for the destiny of his employees and company—reinforcing the message that he was in control of Carta’s fate, and had the mental toughness to steer the company through the times ahead.
Caring and compassion
When people believe that a leader cares about their well-being, commitment, and success, it helps them move from that room called fear to that room called hope. Skilled leaders demonstrate they care by expressing compassion for the harm and emotional distress inflicted by the crisis at hand and the actions they and their organization take in response. They acknowledge that the news is bad, and that it may get worse before it gets better. And they are physically and emotionally present.
Slow down to speed up
Even when fast action is essential, wise leaders know that different people accept and process bad news at different speeds and in different ways. They know that, to enable people to move forward together, it is sometimes best to slow down, seek advice, and do the “emotion work” required to get everyone on the same page. Skilled leaders also realize that people affected by tough decisions—that the leader may have spent weeks wrestling with—probably need time after the announcement to get upset, recover, and weigh their personal options.
Consider the lesson one CEO learned about navigating the COVID-19 crisis. At first, she was annoyed when several members of her leadership team continued to plan events for clients that had been canceled and kept negotiating to reverse decisions about suspended operations. Things got better after she read an interview in Harvard Business Review with David Kessler about the collective grief that people are experiencing during the coronavirus.1 She realized that with each new loss and cancellation, her employees and customers were at different stages in the grieving process. In her next video conference meeting with senior leaders, the CEO announced that offices would close and that several major events would be canceled. She then reminded her team of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of reactions to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
She asked each member to describe which stage of grief they were in for these new decisions: of the dozen or so people on the call, only the CEO and CFO had reached the acceptance stage. These two had discussed these decisions for weeks; the rest of the team was hearing the bad news for the first time. The CEO realized that her natural tendency to push ahead and get things done fast could undermine her team’s well-being and their acceptance and implementation of these decisions—because all were grieving the loss of their work as they had known it.
People are more willing to accept and implement upsetting decisions when they believe that their leaders care about them and are trying to do what is best for the greater good rather than just themselves.
Principles to lead by
People are more willing to accept and implement upsetting decisions when they believe that their leaders care about them and are trying to do what is best for the greater good rather than just themselves—even when they disagree with decisions and will suffer as a result.
A compelling example is seen in the memo that Airbnb CEO and cofounder Brian Chesky sent to his employees on May 5, 2020. The memo announced that about 1,900 people, 25 percent of the company, would be laid off as a result of the dramatic drop in travel prompted by the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to providing unusually generous severance benefits, including at least 14 weeks of pay, 12 months of health insurance, and full vesting of stock for all employees, the note was filled with expressions of respect and compassion: “We have great people leaving Airbnb, and other companies will be lucky to have them. The result is that we will have to part with teammates that we love and value. . . . Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb.”
Leaders who care about employees do more than listen, express sadness and concern, and take comforting symbolic actions. They also know how important it is to implement tough and distressing decisions in the most humane ways possible. Three principles—prediction, understanding, and control—help adept leaders dampen organizational stress.
The protective powers of predictability are a central theme in psychologist Martin Seligman’s classic research on learned helplessness. His “safety-signal hypothesis” was inspired by the air-raid sirens used in London during the Blitz, in 1940 and 1941, when German bombers attacked the city night after night. Because England’s warning system was so reliable, Londoners could go about their business without fear of being killed by German bombs so long as the sirens were silent. When the sirens wailed, they knew it was time to scurry underground to “the Tube” and other safe locations.
The upshot of Seligman’s work is that threats to well-being do less harm if reliable signals enable people to know when they are safe from the threat versus when it is imminent, fear is warranted, and it is time to take action to minimize risk. Conversely, if people never feel safe, their feelings of powerlessness cause them to suffer constant anxiety, despair, and, ultimately, physical and mental illness.
The implication for leaders during a crisis such as COVID-19 is that while they may not be able to stop or dampen many of the distressing consequences, they can protect people by communicating when they will be safe from harmful and upsetting changes. For example, they can protect people from waking up every day and wondering if they will lose pay or no longer have a job by giving them as much information as possible about when they are “safe” from such changes, and when they are not. Our employer, Stanford University, responded to the financial problems triggered by the COVID-19 crisis with the announcement that the university would pay all full-time employees at their current rate through June 15, 2020, and later extended such protection to August 31, 2020. No other commitments were made. But every full-time Stanford employee knew that their pay and job were safe until then.
While predictability is about the potential for bad (or good) things to happen (or not), understanding is about the why. We humans have a burning need for explanations of important events in our lives. When events, especially distressing ones, are uncertain—and clear-cut answers aren’t forthcoming—people get anxious and generate plausible explanations. Once people invent, articulate, and spread such imagined explanations, they can have a hard time letting them go, no matter how incomplete, biased, or downright wrong they are, suggests research by Prashant Bordia and his colleagues.
Dampening the anxiety that fuels distracting rumors requires explaining decisions in enough detail to convey that you, as a leader, are treating the people affected with nuance and care. Leaders also do well to rely heavily on simple headlines and repetition, because the anxiety provoked by crises can make it hard for people to process complex information. We learned a lot about this phenomenon during the previous recession, from the CEO of a technology company. He told us how widespread anxiety about layoffs persisted even after he wrote employees a detailed explanation of the company’s strong financial position, which included commitments to their job security for the next year and optimism about the longer term. “One and done” didn’t work for that CEO, and it won’t work for you now, with uncertainty about the trajectory of the coronavirus and the resulting economic fallout. It may bore and annoy you, but if you repeat the same simple explanations to one person after another, it will help dampen fear and despair.
Leaders who care about employees do more than listen, express sadness and concern, and take comforting symbolic actions. They also know how important it is to implement tough and distressing decisions in the most humane ways possible.
Even under dire circumstances, when people believe that their actions can change the world around them for the better, they are fueled with hope, become more resilient, and are inspired to protect themselves and others. Numerous studies show that when people feel powerful rather than powerless, they feel safeguarded with respect to their physical and mental health. And because they believe their fate is in their own hands, they believe it isn’t futile to try to remove, or at least weaken, sources of stress in their lives, and to dampen the negative effects of upsetting events that they can’t prevent. The protections provided by perceptions of control are evident in a recent study by Erik Gonzalez-Mulé and Bethany S. Cockburn, which tracked a random sample of more than 3,000 US employees for 20 years. They found that among employees with stressful jobs, those who reported having more control over their work were less likely to suffer from poor health and early death.
The implication for leaders who implement painful changes is that if they can’t give people control over what happens to them, people will suffer less if they are given control over how they experience the stress, and over what happens to them as a result of it. In just the past few months, we’ve seen striking variation in how leaders of financially distressed companies implement similar cost-cutting measures, resulting in drastically different levels of control for employees.
Airbnb’s leaders provided those who lost jobs with as much compassion, prediction, understanding, and control as possible. They were informed in a one-on-one meeting with a senior manager and given about a week to say goodbye and to begin taking next steps. Employees also received four months of career-services assistance and were allowed to keep their company laptop, because it “is an important tool to find new work.”
Not all organizations can provide generous severance benefits. But every leader can take responsibility for painful decisions, and every organization can find ways to give employees elements of control over how they leave the organization—and help them find new jobs.
Sustaining hope: Enabling employees to be their best selves
Leaders who take personal accountability, who express compassion, and who create conditions that give employees as much prediction, understanding, and control as possible help move them from a room called fear to a room called hope. Once that is accomplished, the challenge becomes how to sustain employees’ hope, commitment, and enthusiasm day after day during the difficult months and years ahead. It’s invaluable, for the organization and its people, to keep them out of the fearful spot, where they are afflicted by malaise and tunnel vision, avoid taking intelligent risks, and are afraid to speak their minds.
As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, we’ve spent much time talking to, reading about, and helping leaders who are determined to sustain employees’ hope and enthusiasm over the long haul. They talk about the lessons gleaned from dealing with rapid drops and spikes in demand for their products and services, from making abrupt shifts to remote work, from employees’ (and their own) experiences coping with taxing family responsibilities, and from experiments with new ways to increase productivity and innovation.
A persistent theme is that leaders have become more flexible about how and when employees do their work. They are offering more encouragement to employees who express strong feelings, emotions, and unguarded opinions. And, in general, they are encouraging people to bring their best selves to work rather than to conform to company traditions or to emulate a few exemplary peers.
Leaders who take personal accountability, who express compassion, and who create conditions that give employees as much prediction, understanding, and control as possible help move them from a room called fear to a room called hope.
This lesson is reinforced by research from our Stanford colleague Hazel Rose Markus on bringing one’s “best self” to work. She finds that when people explore a wider range of “possible selves,” they develop more self-awareness, a wider range of abilities, and deeper understanding of how and when to draw on their best selves (and stifle their worst selves). These skills are especially crucial in moments of crisis, when organizations need new and varied solutions, and need people to do the right things, rather than what has always been done.
In an extension of Markus’s work, Daniel Cable, Francesca Gino, and Bradley Staats studied newcomers to organizations who were “onboarded” in ways that encouraged them to bring their best selves to work and play to their strengths, rather than conforming to a strong organizational culture.5 They found that newcomers who were encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work were more engaged and satisfied, performed their jobs better, were less likely to leave their jobs, were “bursting with energy,” and found that “time flew.”
In our work with executives and Stanford alums, we’ve borrowed the four prompts that Professor Cable and his colleagues used to teach newcomers to bring their best selves to work:
What three words best describe you as an individual?
What is unique about you that leads to your happiest times and best performance at work?
Your personal-highlights reel: reflect on a specific time—perhaps on a job, perhaps at home—when you were acting the way you were born to act.
How can you repeat that behavior in a new role or even your current job?
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we find that such reframing prompts help just about everyone. This is because we, in a sense, are all new hires, into organizations that are all materially different than they were just a few months ago. In 2020, every major company, nonprofit, and government agency on earth has undertaken unplanned and massive experiments, including the abrupt shift to working from home and drastic changes and constraints prompted by physical distancing and the use of personal protective devices in places where face-to-face interactions occur. Leaders ought to think about their roles as onboarding veteran employees, not just new hires. After all, in only the past few months, most employees have experienced big changes in how and where they are expected to work, and in the sources of satisfaction and anxiety in their lives. They’ve needed to adapt to drastically different dynamics, practices, and rituals and will need to keep doing so as their organizations and jobs continue to change profoundly in the coming months and years.
It’s time to move away from monolithic cultures that promote consistency and conformity, to more flexible cultures that celebrate and draw on employees’ signature strengths and quirks.
When conditions are uncertain and changing, organizations are stymied by people who cling to ingrained and obsolete definitions of being a “good fit” and doing “good work”—and who stifle the best parts of themselves. We aren’t saying that leaders ought to create “anything goes” cultures, where people can follow their heart’s desire indiscriminately. Instead, we’re suggesting, as Microsoft’s Satya Nadella does, that it’s time to move away from monolithic cultures that promote consistency and conformity, to more flexible cultures that celebrate and draw on employees’ signature strengths and quirks. Doing so should help organizations develop the flexibility and process and product innovations required to survive and compete in the coming years.
When employees bring their best selves to work, it’s a lot easier for them to stay in that room called hope: a place where the days fly by. Where they learn and experiment. Where they feel safe to admit and learn from their mistakes. And where they sleep well at night.