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Leading Through a Crisis – Part Three

A businessman holding an umbrella during a lightning storm

Being in charge during a crisis is tough.

But at some point during every leader’s career, they will be faced by one.

In our three-part blog series on leading through a crisis, we’ve looked at a decision-making framework leaders can have in place for when the worst happens, the leadership style approaches that work best, and how leaders can avoid groupthink and biases from impacting decisions.

But how can leaders better manage their emotions and understand how they respond to different pressures?

What happens if you need to lead your team through a long-running crisis? And how can they overcome communications barriers?

Dan Boniface, our head of training, believes self-awareness is another crucial skill leaders need to develop to help them manage crises and emergencies.

“If I feel panicked and stressed in the early stages of a crisis, I need to know how I can control those feelings because we cannot be in a state of panic for the first hour of a crisis,” he said.

“I need a cool, calm head. So, what triggers those emotions? How can I keep control of them?

“There's neuroscience research that suggests an emotion lasts for 90 seconds. This means that when we feel panicked, we can let that emotion drift away after 90 seconds.

“But people are complex, and we keep going back to the thoughts that are making us panic, and that keeps the emotion going.

“So, we get to the end of 90 seconds and then have another 90 seconds and so on – we can get stuck like this for a long time.”

To overcome this, leaders need to manage their emotions and understand their triggers.

“As a leader, you have to try to take the emotional side out of it and let those thoughts drift away,” Dan.

“Let’s deal with what's in front of us.

“You must be resilient, and you have to have control over yourself, particularly in those early stages.

“Your time to feel the stress may come later than for others because you will be no good if you are panicking and surrounded by fear.

“It may be that your release comes later once the initial stages of the crisis have died down. Take yourself for a walk or speak to a mentor or a buddy.”

Leaders also need to be aware of the emotions of others. Emotional intelligence is crucial for guiding people through uncertainty.

Dan said: “Always lead with empathy. Seek first to understand and then be understood.

“So, let’s understand what people are thinking and help them move forward.

“Help them see that it will get better even if that's 15, 20 minutes or an hour.

“Say, ‘Yes, this is a difficult situation. We're working hard to push through it and in 24 hours, it will look different'.”

What about if you feel some of your team are panicking?

“You have to question whether this the right time for them to be involved now,” Dan said.

“If a team member is too close to the crisis or has affected their values and beliefs and is struggling, are there other options? Is there another expert who could take their place?

“It’s not fair on the team or the individual to put them through that when they haven't got the mental capacity to deal with it in that moment.

“And their expertise may be needed later on when the initial storm generated by the crisis has died down.”

Long-running crisis?

Every crisis is different.

Some build rapidly and quickly run out of steam.

But an organisation can also find themselves in crisis mode for weeks and months.

And the longer the crisis lasts, the tougher it can be to remain resilient.

Dan said: “It's crucial leaders have a buddy system or a mentor they can go to and release, and that can provide support.

“You need to be able to talk to people and get things off your chest.

“And you need to know your relief points as well. Maybe it’s playing sport, going to the gym, or meditating.

“There was a lady on one of our courses recently who does a lot of knitting - that's her release.

“She’ll sit there for an hour and knit, and it gives her a complete release from everything else going on. It gets her out of that kind of clouded thinking.

“You can't be on 24/7. There needs to be other people in the leadership team who can do the same role.”

Communication barriers

The importance of communication during a crisis cannot be overstated.

Internal and external communication should be timely and continuous. Failure to do that can increase rumour, speculation, unease and damage trust.

But when we discuss communication, we also need to consider how information is received and delivered, particularly in the early stages of a crisis.

Leaders need accurate information and must give clear instruction. But that can be tricky.

To explore this further, Dan uses the Shannon-Weaver communication model. It was created to improve communication through the telephone in the late 1940s. However, it has subsequently been used more widely to describe effective communication and is something we explore during our leadership communication training courses.

“The idea here is that we have a source of information,” Dan said.

“Typically, that source is a person, and they code the message and consider how they will convey that information. Will it be written or said?

“Between that person and the receiver, there is a noise barrier, which restricts a clear message being received.

“During a crisis, there is lots going on, people might be panicking, there could be many people in the room. People are likely to be distracted.”

The receiver then decides what to do with that information.

Dan said: “The noise barriers present a significant barrier to effective communication. They can dilute what is said and make it unclear.

“One way of overcoming that barrier is through the feedback loop. This is where understanding of the message can be checked.

“Let’s clarify understanding of that message. There are a couple of ways of doing that. I could ask the other person, ‘Do you understand?

“But that is a closed question that gives me a yes or no response. So, that is not enough.

“Instead, I could ask them to paraphrase or to summarise what I've just said, which clarifies their understanding. Or, if I am speaking to them face-to-face, I can look for visual clues in their body language - facial expressions, eye contact and eye movements.

“They show me if they understand and follow what I am saying.

“If they don’t, I need to find another way to get that message across.”

During a crisis, leaders can be both the sender and receiver of information.

“Particularly at the start, the leader may not have all the information that he or she needs,” Dan added.

“And they will need the team to give clear messages about what it is that just happened.

“At this stage, you don’t need all the detail in the first instance. You need a clear understanding of the problem, what's gone wrong and the impact.

“The more noise we put in, with things like filler words, the more clouded the message becomes.”

Need more help? Speak to us about our bespoke leadership crisis training courses.

We also have a new range of online leadership and management training courses.

Our online First Line Manager training course has been created to help them make the first steps into management. It is ideal for assistant managers, supervisors, office managers, foremen or shift managers – anyone who has been asked to make the leap from high performer to manager.

Have you got leaders with management responsibilities but no formal training, who are serious about developing their essential skills and abilities? Our online ILM Level 3 Leadership and Management course will help them lead people through organisational change, budget cuts and other pressures. And move up to the next level of management.

Our ILM Level 5 Certificate in Leadership and Management online training is created for senior and middle managers. It will help them develop their skills and experience, improve performance of themselves and the organisation, be able to understand and affect a positive cultural organisation, and innovate and implement change.

And our new online ILM Level 5 certificate in coaching and mentoring course is perfect for those who want to provide coaching - and mentoring - for others. A skilled coach or mentor is increasingly crucial for every organisation as work moves away from command-and-control styles.

The BCF Group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.

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