This article is part of a series, Tips on Crisis Leadership from Some of the World’s Greatest Leaders. It draws together lessons from leaders who have managed through times of novel crises including wars, financial crashes and organisational collapses. In the last article we looked at the importance of defining the crisis in clear terms for your team. In this article we outline how you can give your team an optimistic perspective of the problem to maximise your organisation’s chances of coming out the other side of this pandemic.
Lieutenant General Chesty Puller and his men were surrounded by enemy troops in every direction. Wherever he looked there was grave danger. By his calculation, they were outnumbered by approximately 30:1 and there was no escape. Puller looked over at his men and saw defeat in their eyes. Puller knew, as their leader, he had to change his team’s perspective quickly if they had any chance of surviving. So he opened his mouth and calmly said, “Ok troops, they are to the left us, they are to the right of us. They’re behind us and they’re in front of us – so they can’t get away from us this time!” His troops responded to his optimistic perspective and against the odds, fought their way out and survived.
Your team need to be optimistic that your organisation will survive this pandemic. As their leader, you must develop and help maintain that positive perspective. In this article, we explore why optimism is so critical to your success and provide practical steps to cultivate it.
A crisis causes a major dilemma for leaders. If your organisation is going to survive this pandemic, you need your team members to step up – to be more motivated than ever, to perform strongly and to work together as a close knit unit. By their very nature though, crises cause people to do the opposite because they create feelings of fear, hopelessness and anxiety(1). Many, if not all, of your team will be experiencing this in various degrees right now. Left unchecked, these feelings lead to helplessness, which is to say, ‘the belief that they cannot do anything to change the outcome’(2). If you let your team get to this stage, you can expect a collective downing of tools including a reduction in productivity, innovation, morale and their ability to connect with colleagues. Getting through the crisis therefore becomes practically impossible.
Take for example, the fate of a publishing company in New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. The company had been struggling financially for a few years and this event put them in a desperate place. Instead of reassuring staff members and giving them optimism for the future, the leaders of the company remained silent. The result was a workforce dominated by fear for their safety and for their livelihood. This was catastrophic for the company. Many staff resigned, productivity dropped and the fear culture led to mistake after mistake. The company closed for good a year later.
If fear is the problem, optimism is the solution. That is the conclusion from a substantial body of research. Teams that are optimistic that they can overcome the crisis in front of them are, on average, over 30% smarter and 31% more productive than when they are in a negative frame of mind(3). Studies also found that optimistic staff outperform their more pessimistic colleagues by 56% and their accuracy on tasks was 19% higher(4). These margins are significant with experts stating that they can make the difference between successfully overcoming a crisis or not (5).
For example: a US hospital was on the brink of financial collapse. Many staff were made redundant and the remaining staff were asked to take a pay cut. Morale was at an all-time low with only 23% of them believing they would survive the crisis. Consequently the President of the hospital introduced numerous positive interventions. Within six weeks optimism grew to over 40% and increased even further in the following months. The results were incredible. Scores over the course of a year showed staff were happier, less stressed, more connected and more productive. The change in the culture, from defeated to optimistic, had a significant impact on the bottom line. Within two years of the interventions starting, the hospital had gone from a $2million deficit to an $8million profit. This was in a season where most other hospitals were losing vast sums of money(6).
How can you keep your team optimistic in the midst of an ever changing crisis? Here are five practical steps.
Acknowledge your team’s fears
This is a critical first step. You must acknowledge the fears your team has. Covid-19 is here and it scares them. They may have fears for their health and for the safety of their vulnerable family members. They may also fear for their job, the future of your organisation and the people it takes care of. Do not make the fatal mistake of pretending these issues do not exist or play them down. This will make your people more fearful and they will lose trust in your leadership. No one wants to follow a pessimist, but they don’t want to follow a blind optimist either.
Deactivate their fears
You will not get someone to listen to the positive until you have deactivated the negative. In our brains we have something called the amygdala. The amygdala is the size of an almond and it is our internal warning system, protecting us from danger. It overestimates threats to keep you alive. Neuroscientists studied the amygdala’s response to a threat using FMRI scanning. They showed people a threatening image and without fail the amygdala would light up. In this state, our fight or flight response is activated, our brain focuses in on the threats and reduces our ability to solve problems and think creatively. Over time, this is a disaster for organisations.
There is a way to deactivate this though. In the aforementioned study, the neuroscientists asked the people what they were feeling and they would respond, “I feel scared”. Whenever the person labelled their emotion, the amygdala would deactivate. Without exception, the FMRI would show that the light would dim or go off completely. This made them more responsive to optimism and problem solving.(7)
As a leader, you can go one step further and call out your team’s emotions for them. This has a powerful effect. You can deactivate their fears and build trust. Trust is the essential ingredient if you want them to follow your leadership. Be aware that the language you use here is very important. You must say, “I know you are scared [or insert any other emotion].” Do not say to them, “I am scared”, or, “we are all scared right now”. You may well be, and that’s ok, but to deactivate their fear you must call out their fears not yours. Your tone is also important. Use a slower voice and combine it with a downward inflection. This helps to calm people. Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss calls this his ‘late-night radio voice’(8). Think BBC Radio 4 rather Ibiza FM though!
One final point in this section. Saying it once may not completely deactivate your team’s fears. Dig deeper. Ask them what is going on inside of them and listen very carefully. Identify their negative emotions and call it out again. For example, “Thank you for sharing that. I know you are feeling hopeless right now. It sounds like you don’t know when this is going to be over and you are exhausted”. This will help to deactivate their fears.
Create a plan and act quickly
Now you have acknowledged and deactivated your team’s fears, you need to start taking action. Inaction will crush optimism and it will do so quickly. Creating a strategy and taking action will be explored in my next post so I won’t delve too deeply in this section. For now, here are the essential points. Create a ‘war room’ mentality for your team. You are all facing this pandemic together and that makes you strong. In terms of planning, brainstorm ideas with your team. Acknowledge that there are no guarantees here but go with the options that give you the best chance of successfully navigating through this crisis. The pandemic problem is huge and you will need to break the work down into manageable projects and tasks. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Make sure your team members know why the task is important and how it relates to your overall vision. Some things may not work, but create a culture where you and your team are focused on getting smarter every step of the way rather than worrying about making mistakes.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
This pandemic is a changing and unrelenting beast. Nobody knows when it is going to be over. This creates uncertainty and uncertainty opens the door to fear. To keep optimism high, schedule regular meetings. People are grateful for meetings when they are scared. In the toughest times schedule them daily and preferably at the same time (e.g. 10am every day). Set strict time limits on the meeting. One hour is usually plenty. Always set out the next steps, detailing the tasks or analysis that must be completed before the next meeting. Why? First, it helps to break the crisis down into manageable chunks. Second, it helps people to see positive progress every day. Third, in the most overwhelming moments, your people can say, ‘all I have to do is get through to tomorrow at 10am and then we can reassess’.
Beware the miserable middle
Everyone can be inspired at the beginning of a crisis and we all love a happy conclusion. The middle of a crisis is really tough though. In fact, every organisation looks doomed to fail in the middle of a crisis. This is known as Kanter’s Law(9). Resources are diminishing, staff are tired, money is running out and progress is slow. Unfortunately optimism is usually at an all-time low. More organisations fold at this point of a crisis than at any other. But you have a choice. Give up, and by definition it’s a failure. If you can inspire your team to persevere, to adapt, to stay disciplined and to fight on then you may just find your way through this pandemic. To keep your team optimistic, I recommend you do all of the things I mentioned above. In addition, generate some positive momentum by celebrating completed tasks and projects. Highlight any positive impacts you are having on your service users. If things are really tough, script victories for your team. Set a low fundraising target for a particular project for example. You can change a defeated culture one scripted victory at a time.
Wrapping it up
Right now, there are problems to the left of you and problems to the right of you. They are in front of you and they are behind you. They cannot escape from you and your team though and you will overcome them. History is full of examples of organisations getting through the toughest of times and coming out stronger and smarter than ever before. You can be one of them. You also do not have to go through this alone. As always, Cranfield Trust is here to help you navigate this crisis through consultancy or mentoring. You can find out more about how they can support you here.
(1) There is a substantial body of research in this area. See for example, Schuster MA, Stein BD, Jaycox LH, Collins RL, Marshall GN, Elliott MN, Berry SH. ‘A National Survey of Stress Reactions after the September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks.’ New Engl J Med, 345(20), 1507–1512;2001.
(2) Shea F., Hurley E. ‘Hopelessness and helplessness’, Psychiatr. Care. 1964;2(1):32–38
(3) Achor S (2010) The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, New York, Broadway Books.
(4) Seligman M. E. P. (1990). Learned Optimism. New York: Simon & Schuster, Incas
(5) Kotler S (2014) The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Boston, New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
(6) Achor S, Gielan M (2020) ‘What Leading with Optimism Really Looks Like’ Harvard Business Review (published on HBR.org)
(7) Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH, Baldwin MW (2007) ‘Putting Feelings into Words: Affect Labelling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli’ Psychol Sci, 18(5), 421-8
(8) Voss C, Raz T, Kramer M (2019) Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your Life Depended on it. United States, Author’s Republic.
(9) Kanter RM (2009) ‘Change is the Hardest in the Middle’. Harvard Business Review (published on HBR.org).