Leading Through Times of Fear and Uncertainty

Photo of pensive businessman

Photo of pensive businessmanThe World Health Organization has advised that we should all be prepared for a global pandemic due to COVID-19 (commonly referred to as Coronavirus). In response,  organizations are rapidly addressing policies, evaluating risk, and examining their disaster recovery plans. Whether the United States will contain the spread of the virus or not, there will be a significant global economic effect that may continue for some time. While some organizations are being proactive about offering remote working options even in areas where no infections have been reported, others are more aggressively working to prevent infection by prohibiting work-related travel and cancelling conferences.

It will take some time before we know if these measures were an overreaction based on fear or if they were prudent actions in response to an uncertain, ever-evolving situation. In the meantime, leaders at all levels must adjust to address this unusual time in the workplace. At this stage, the only immediate effect may be a heightened awareness of risk and a generally anxious workforce, but that shouldn’t be underestimated. With a rapidly evolving situation like a viral outbreak, it’s worth taking time now to meet with your teams to have an open discussion about their concerns. Some may be more focused on how to continue working if their children’s schools close temporarily. Others may be more concerned about the organization’s stability depending on the industry (airlines, hospitality, restaurants, etc.). Don’t assume you know what everyone is thinking, but also don’t expect to have all the answers. Be prepared to listen, acknowledge, and develop communication/contingency plans where appropriate. Remember to be empathetic. Even if you believe the overall risk is low, that doesn’t negate the fear/concerns of others who are viewing this through the lens of their own lives.

In times of uncertainty, empathy and flexibility will rarely steer you down the wrong path. If your organizational design and logistics allow, consider preemptively allowing employees to work from home. For some, that may reduce their overall anxiety around exposure, and allow them to continue being productive. For others, it shows you’re understanding and willing to adapt your approach.

Re-evaluate what is necessary to continue operating effectively and identify if there are any ways you can be more creative in identifying alternatives. As you make adjustments, clearly communicate your expectations with the team regarding their activities. It’s also important to remember that while your goal will be to continue “business as usual,” that may seem insensitive to others who feel that there is nothing normal about the world at this time.

While we can’t control what happens next regarding a viral outbreak or the economic impact, we can control how we react to these unusual circumstances. Establishing an open line of communication, making level-headed adjustments, and developing contingency plans that you may never have to implement are wise ways to prepare during this time of uncertainty.