The Coronavirus pandemic is a reminder of how rapidly things can change and, for businesses, a reminder of the need to be able to move with speed and agility. For C-suite executives leading through crisis, the challenges in these highly uncertain environments are many and there is no playbook about how to respond. When the context is changing exponentially, it is almost impossible to time your response appropriately – too early and you may contribute to alarmist panic. Too late and your complacency could have significant consequences. Achieving the right intensity and tone for the response are equally difficult. In addition to making the right decisions for the specific situation, leaders also need to provide confidence, reduce anxiety, and generally help employees function with some level of normalcy. The role of the C-Suite is particularly important because during times of uncertainty and crisis, people look to authority figures to provide direction. In these times, senior management might find that even the most self-directed individuals at different levels in the organization – those who can normally be counted on to provide leadership and direction for their peers – are more likely to wait for direction from the top. The C-Suite executives have to not only provide this direction but do so in an empathetic manner that clearly demonstrates an understanding of the challenges whilst also projecting confidence about recovering from the crisis.
Survive | Thrive
From our recent research, we have described a two-channel system of hardwiring in our brains that has evolved to help us detect and respond to threats and opportunities. This Survive|Thrive system provides an explanation for the behavior of individuals and groups in these uncertain times and provides some insights for how leaders can best navigate the uncertainty. The Survive Channel, which is the louder and evolutionarily older of the two Channels, has evolved to detect threats and provides an instinctive response through hormones and other chemicals that initiate a “flight or fight” response. While these threats were initially physical threats to our survival, this same mechanism is activated by threats to our health, our status, our egos, or any other aspect of our wellbeing. The real and perceived threats during the current pandemic crisis are especially capable of triggering a strong Survive Channel response because 1) it is a physical threat 2) it is invisible and 3) individuals cannot take actions to eliminate the threat (at least not immediately).
The Survive Channel, when functioning well, narrows our focus and increases our level of activity to problem solve and eliminate the threat. However, when we have limited ability to eliminate the threat and are being hit over and over again by news and information that repeatedly triggers our Survive Channel, it results in a freeze response and complete inactivity. For businesses where the impact of the Coronavirus could be especially significant (for instance, a perceived or actual need for layoffs) this phenomenon is particularly acute. In these businesses, the distraction and despair from overheated Survive triggers is leading to a severe loss of productivity. And due to the well-documented social contagion of emotions, this extends to the population at large. For those in the C-suite, it is critical to start to calm the Survive Channel by reducing the anxiety and fear.
How To Calm Overheated Survive Triggers
An understanding of the human hardwiring provides some insights into how to do this:
- Reduce the volume of threats by separating the perceived threats from the real ones. There are very real threats associated with the Coronavirus. We are, of course, not infectious disease experts and will limit our discussion to the impact that the measures to prevent the virus is having on businesses. Even within that context the threat is very real; the disruption to supply chains, customer activity, and employee health cannot be overstated. However, there are also perceived threats that may not be real – most of these are related to questions around what actions leaders will take in response to the emerging reality. Will there be layoffs or reduced hours? Will I be forced to physically report to work? What about sick pay? Leaders can help address these by, for example, clarifying current or expanding sick leave practices to eliminate that worry. By reducing the volume of threats, leaders can help prevent the Survive Channel from overheating.
- Recognize that ambiguity is one of the greatest sources of anxiety and reduce ambiguity where possible. The Survive Channel is very responsive to the uncertainty that can hide threats. Leaders can reduce uncertainty by, for example, clarifying what changes are in scope, what process will be used to make decisions, what expectations will be revised, etc. Even where answers are unknown, simply recognizing them as unknowns can reduce the level of anxiety tremendously. It enables a team to ground itself in the common denominator of not knowing and the knowledge that it is not just you who is being left out can prevent our social anxiety from being triggered.
- Inspire confidence through seeking input and demonstrating calm decision making. While we are big proponents of delegating authority, in time of crisis there is a desire for more command and control leadership. However, a rapidly changing environment also means that the C-Suite executives will not, by themselves, have all the information to make good decisions. By opening channels for two-way communication, leaders can ensure they are getting real time information from as many people as possible and are providing clear direction based on this information. A leadership team may believe they are communicating consistently and adequately about an emerging situation, not aware that employees further down in the organization are experiencing that communication as infrequent and inadequate.
Executive Decision Making
In addition to reducing anxiety and calming the Survive Channel, C-suite leaders also need to determine what and how to make changes to their operations. While the specific decisions will of course vary from business to business based on different contexts, there are some universal principles that can guide decision making:
- Include long term thinking. While the news media and much of the public is treating the Coronavirus crisis like a blizzard that needs a few days of action, the consensus from the public health community is that this will be a crisis that unfolds over many months. Leaders should be thinking about the immediate necessary actions, but also starting to develop longer term plans that include the impact of the short-term measures. A work from home policy might work for a few days or a few weeks, but what impact will this have on the business if it extends to a few months? How can you redeploy resources that may not be able to perform their normal roles – like any employee whose job includes significant travel?
- Take a multi-stakeholder view. It has been encouraging to see how many businesses have responded quickly to customer needs in this crisis – from canceling rebooking fees, to introducing new delivery options. Beyond the customer focused changes, it is important that leaders make decisions through a multi-stakeholder lens – actions that are beneficial to customers but at a heavy expense to employees or shareholders will, in the long run, be unhelpful.
- Maintain a bias towards centralized action, especially with respect to communication. In times of high uncertainty, it is more important to have consistency in communication than a perfectly tailored message for each constituent group. While a decentralized model can be more effective in customizing and tailoring messages to the needs of constituents, the emphasis on clarity and consistency is paramount now, and requires a greater centralization.
- Remember that partial answers are better than no answers. In a fast moving situation it is hard to have all the answers. Rather than waiting to develop complete plans, or for absolute truths to become known, leaders should communicate – early and often – with the information they do have. Not providing direction is more harmful than changing direction if the situation changes.
Crisis Creates an Opportunity for Change
Effectively dealing with a crisis is not just about eliminating problems but also about seeking and capitalizing on the opportunities presented. While the Coronavirus crisis has obviously created significant challenges, it also creates some opportunities. Not least of these is a sense of a shared purpose, of common experience, which can spill over into increased collaboration and cooperation in other unrelated areas. As described above, there are two Channels in our mind-body hardwiring – the second of these, the Thrive Channel is designed to look for opportunities, trigger the release of chemicals that elicit positive emotions, and create broad, innovative thinking about how to take advantage of these opportunities. In addition to calming the Survive Channel, leaders should be looking to activate the Thrive Channel, understanding that this may need to wait, as it is extremely difficult to activate Thrive if Survive is already overheated.
Helpful Examples of Change Opportunities
As with every crisis, there will be opportunities to change the way things are done. Some examples could include:
- Experiment with new ways of working: The measures to limit the spread of the virus are forcing many companies to adopt virtual and work at home policies. If viewed as an opportunity to truly experiment, businesses might discover that certain aspects of their work are better done remotely or that they can achieve significant cost reduction, increased employee satisfaction, or greater effectiveness by encouraging more people to work from home – now and possibly into the future. Another example of this opportunity is the way in which people within most organizations are pulling together to move quickly and support each other – pitching in while a colleague determines childcare options, breaking down silos between functions to get things done, etc. Without a deliberate effort these new ways of working will revert back to the old once the crisis is averted, but with a focus on understanding why and how these new behaviors and actions are happening, leaders can positively influence the culture after the crisis abates.
- An opportunity to reprioritize and focus on important, but not urgent business. With the pace at which most businesses operate today, there are always important but not urgent needs that get constantly displaced. Refocusing some energy and resources to these initiatives could be one way to not only deploy underutilized resources, but also set up the business for success in the future. The financial crisis forced many businesses to rethink their priorities and those that did so proactively with an eye on the future were able to recover and pivot to growth much more quickly and successfully.
- Ability to take actions that serve long term interest, but not short-term market needs. During a crisis such as this one, stock prices tend to move with the broader market or with the direct impact of the crisis on a particular industry – think, travel in this case. This can provide cover for leaders to take actions that may be in the best long-term interest of their firm but that have been difficult to enact because of short term market pressures.
As we have written about previously for Chief Executive Magazine, thriving in uncertain times requires resisting the urge to look internally and focusing only on weathering the storm. Leaders who can calm the Survive response by inspiring confidence and calmness and can equally activate Thrive by focusing on opportunities and shared purpose, will help their businesses navigate the current crisis successfully and come out of it stronger than before.