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Emotional Responses When Leading in Times of Crisis

The Three Cs: CALMNESS, COMPASSION, CONTROL

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the world – it has shaken governments, businesses, lives. In a world of lockdowns, isolation, and social distancing, we have had to learn to live and work differently, to learn to adapt to a new normal. In such a time of unprecedented change as this, how should we react? What emotional responses can we learn to cultivate during times of crisis?

CALMNESS

Our first response, when faced with threat is to either fight, take flight, or freeze. It is natural for our limbic brains to be driven by stimuli; to go into overdrive when faced with danger. Every day, we are faced with cognitive dissonance: the world is no longer safe, and we are bombarded by more bad news, forced to deal with our mortality. Anticipatory grief, this is the word coined for what we are feeling – we no longer know what lies before us, and we are fearful for our futures, mourning the end of the world as we know it.

But it is just at such a time as this, that we must take charge of our limbic brains. No one can make rational decisions when in panic mode. Hence, remaining calm is the most critical thing we can do to reassure our people, providing them clarity of vision, values, and purpose in a time of chaos. Anthropology ties this to the alpha trait as the way a leader behaves will trickle-down to his or her followers. It is natural to be impatient to make decisions in a time of crisis, to want to find solutions and “lead”, but rushing forward can be detrimental.

But how do we stay calm?

    • Acknowledge what we are feeling
      One way is to acknowledge what we are feeling. Naming our feelings allows us to understand what we are experiencing and to learn to manage it. It helps us reframe our fears, moving from “Everything is going wrong,” to “This is what I can do about it,”. If we understand our limbic responses, we can recognize reactive behavior for what it is and shift to a more proactive stance, preventing ourselves from making poor decisions. Hence, self-awareness is necessary in order for us to learn to control our impulses.
    • Allow for considered decision-making
      At a time when complex problems require us to bring clarity of thought to the table, it is also crucial that we engage our rational brain. But science shows that it is only possible to turn on our neocortex when we are calm, when our amygdalas are not in overdrive. That is why it is critical to take that deep breath before making rash decisions and leaping in. Deep breathing, mindfulness, and self-reflection can all help us to quiet our minds. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we much sit on our hands either. Doing nothing is not an option. Instead, it is about making “quick but considered decisions without being overly weighed down by policy, process or protocol”
COMPASSION

This does not mean that we should leave our feelings at the door, either. At times when people worry for their future, for their careers, for their lives, one key emotional response a leader can cultivate is compassion. A subset of empathy, compassion is not just the rational understanding that someone is in distress, neither is it about being so emotionally rooted in someone else’s pain to the point of paralysis. Instead, it is the ability to sympathize with the suffering of others and to be moved to help them.

But what does it mean to be compassionate?

    • Forgiving Yourself and Others
      For one thing, it is learning to forgive yourself. As Lee Lung Nian, CEO of Citibank Malaysia, said during ASB’s first webinar titled, “Sharing Asian Leadership Practices During a Time of Crisis”, it is about understanding that the decisions we make are not perfect. ASB Professor, Michael Frese, calls it an “exercise in humbleness” – realizing that we are just as capable of making mistakes as the next person. It is about understanding our vulnerabilities and forgiving ourselves for our shortfalls; it is about understanding our limitations and accepting them as part and parcel of being human.
    • Two way communication and support
      As Mr Lee also states, it is at times like this that we must overcommunicate. People need to feel love, and it is vital to engage with them often. But communication is not a one-way street. Instead, as Sabri Yusof, a Senior Lecturer at ASB says, it is about being open, honest, and having meaningful conversations with others. Being compassionate requires organizations to be willing to listen to feedback, to understand pain points, and to find ways to eradicate and alleviate suffering, putting in place initiatives and policies to support their people.
CONTROL

We are used to fixing things, but this crisis has shown us that our capabilities are limited. Managing people has become that much more difficult when working from home is no longer an exception but a norm. In such an environment, leaders can feel as though they are losing control. So what can we do to feel in control again?

The answer is, in many ways, counterintuitive. Instead of striving to feel more in control, we can learn to let go of the need for it. This means understanding what we can and cannot influence, as well as admitting that things can go wrong despite our actions. It means accepting that although we may not have control, we still have choices – we can choose what thoughts, feelings, and actions to focus on.

    • Agility
      As such, what is called for at times like this, is not control but agility. As Norlia Azmi, Chief People and Culture Officer at Permodalan National Berhad (PNB) said during ASB’s second webinar (A Balancing Act: Supporting Your People and Your Business), it is critical for us to remain agile as agility compels adaptability. Agile leadership means remaining fluid in our decision making and being able to pivot when necessary. By all means, do institute ways to monitor and manage things that fall within your sphere of control, but also be prepared to implement changes. Allowing adversity to disrupt the way we work can drive our creativity and lead to alternative solutions, changing the way we do things for the better.
    • Trust
      Another way to let go of control is to empower others. Initiatives to monitor and measure performance can be introduced, but they will never be foolproof. Hence, what may be more important is building a workforce that can harness intrinsic motivation to propel productivity. Distributed leadership allows us to devolve control, enabling people to self-lead and to pursue meaning and purpose in the work they do.The most successful organizations are the ones that propagate trust, tapping on their trust reserves when required. But how can organizations grow their trust capital? It all comes down to a company’s purpose, values and culture. Corporate culture is amplified during times of crisis, and here I would like to offer ASB as evidence. ASB aspires for low oversight and high independence. Believing in a more decentralized system that allows for individual accountability, what ASB’s Dean and President, Charlie Fine, prescribes to during times of crisis include the three other Cs which are made up of Communication, Collaboration and Coordination. This means overcommunicating to encourage feedback, building capacity throughout the entire organization, coordinating and collaborating between individuals and departments, and moving resources to where the need is greatest. Rather than micromanaging, it is about developing an accountable workforce where productivity arises naturally.Having said this, we must also remember that trust works both ways. As Puan Norlida says, as much as the organization must trust in its people, so must employees trust their leaders – trusting them to navigate uncharted waters, providing courageous leadership as they forge a path forward. And this is where authentic leadership matters once again. It is the leaders who have built credibility (fostering integrity and transparency while still delivering results) who will be the ones to garner trust during times of crisis. If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it is the importance of striking a balance between responding humanely while still delivering excellence, and it will be the leaders who can do both who will be the ones to lead us into the new normal.

 

Michele has 22 years leadership and management experience in the areas of human capital development, strategic thought, corporate finance, coaching, psychotherapy and education, both the public and private sectors in the UK and Malaysia. Having headed various roles in multinational organizations such as the Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre, UBS, HSBC, and CIMB, Michele brings with her a wealth of international business acumen, allowing her to provide critical insight into leadership and management practices.

Following a career change in 2014, Michele is also a certified psychotherapist, coach as well as EQ practitioner (certified by ICF and 6seconds, the largest EQ organization in the world). As such, Michele has provided leadership development and coaching services for clients ranging from the C-suites to young executives – all of them hailing from a wide range of industries such as Oil and Gas, Construction, Transportation, Finance, Telecommunication and small businesses. She has also practiced as a psychotherapist and counselor, working with patients suffering from depression, PTSD, anxiety, relationship issues, OCD and more. Michele is also member of the Malaysian Association of Psychotherapists.

A certified human capital strategist and instructional designer, she has also trained, facilitated and written on various topics including Managing Change, Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Transformation and Leadership. Michele has a BSc and a MSc from the London School of Economics, UK. She was also a Malaysian JPA, British High Commission and Citibank scholar winning various academic awards.

She can be contacted at michele@asb.edu.my.