Matt Lindley: Leading during the Crisis

We find ourselves in unprecedented times with the day-to-day running of organisations being turned upside down. One particularly important area at the moment is leadership and more specifically the need to adapt leadership styles in the crisis situation.

Ordinarily we would advocate inclusive leadership, where the leader sets strategic direction by empowering employees and then stepping back.  The leader should maintain situation awareness (SA) – also known as the big picture, by not getting involved in micro management.  This way his SA can be enhanced by noticing (N) what is occurring to himself and teams, this in turn feeds an understanding (U), which finally allows the leader to think ahead (TA) and strategise. This is known as NUTA.

The current situation is a once in a lifetime occurrence, which requires a very different leadership approach.  In order to understand the change in style, we must first understand what is happening to most people.

If we look at our evolutionary brain we have a powerful survival instinct.  This instinct is believed to be up to 5 times stronger than our normal day to day brain / thought process. It has to be, as it is designed to allow us to survive when faced with a life threatening attack.  Think of a caveman about to be eaten by a sabre toothed tiger.  The brain is immediately flushed with cortisol (one of the stress hormones), the amygdala (a part of the brain) hijacks our thought process.  It makes an immediate decision to fight, flight or freeze.  This has to be immediate, otherwise the individual would be eaten.  Ordinarily the human brain is logical, slow and considered. Thinking first and slowly acting after careful consideration.  The survival brain works in an opposite sense. It instantaneously acts first and thinks second, fast simplistic decision making.

In the current crisis, the threat is not the sabre toothed tiger, but the Corona Virus.  Ordinary peoples thought processes are being hijacked into fast illogical and emotional behaviour, as their survival brains kick in. This is why people have been fighting at super markets over loo rolls – illogical and highly emotional.  Now think of these same people in the work place making crucial decision.  Anxiety stress and threat will corrupt the quality of employee performance.

So once we understand the psychology of fear and crisis, then we need to adapt our leadership style to mitigate this current threat.  The leader has to adapt their style to manage employees and help everybody managed their response to the Corona Virus.  By changing style, the leader will hopefully stop employees falling into survival mode.  Remember fear, a threat and uncertainty trigger the survival response.  Once this kicks in at work, employees decision making will be sub optimum, just at the time that you need them at peak performance.

Leaders need to adopt a more military style of direction.  In situational leadership, this would be a more ‘tell’ rather than “collaborative” style.  The leader needs to giving clear direction without feeding fear, as this will exacerbate the problem.  In a crisis everybody needs calm clarity of thought.  The “tell” military style of leading however does not mean shouting forcefully from the front as this will feed fear. This blunt approach to leading will actually instigate the Fight Flight Freeze response!  Instead the leader has to control the perceived threat.  This means demonstrating comprehension, communicating known timely facts, and having a simple co ordinated plan of action.  Being calm, reassuring and being in control, taps into the soothing system in the brain which in turn calms down the Fight Flight Freeze response. Without these three elements people will naturally catastrophise and thus make poor decisions.

So in this time of crisis and uncertainty business leaders need to give reassurance, certainty with clear and honest direction without catastrophising.  The key is frequent internal communication, to feed the desire for information.  Silence will feed fear and encourage the survival instinct to kick in.  Once this does we all lose clarity of thought.

 

Matt Lindley is a pilot & human factors expert. To book him (or any other speaker) for your event contact JLA here

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