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 this article we look at how to lead your people well during this crisis to maximise their wellbeing and performance.  How to lead your people well in a crisis is also covered from different angles in the previous articles in this series, including framing the crisis well,  importance of leading with optimism and the need for speed in decision making and execution.

A crisis like no other 

When Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States of America on Monday 4th March 1861, the nation was in a crisis more severe and ominous than any other time in American history.  Seven southern states had just split from the rest of the Union to form the Confederate States of America.  This led to a Civil War that lasted four years, costing an estimated 750,000 lives (1).  During the war, Lincoln was trying to bring about the abolition of slavery, a major moral and humanitarian crisis.  The potential abolition of slavery was one of the reasons the Confederate states seceded and, with other states opposing it, was an issue that could have explosive consequences (2).  The very future of the United States of America was at stake, as were the lives of millions of men and women trapped in slavery.  It was a crisis of historic proportion.     

The key to overcoming the crisis – the people 

Abraham Lincoln understood that it was the people he led – his Cabinet, his Advisors, the military and the US citizens – who were key to overcoming the crisis.  They were the ones that would get the job done, not him.  So, he made looking after his people a key strategic priority.  For example, it is widely estimated that he spent 75% of his time meeting with people of all ranks and backgrounds (3).  Experts also state that his high emotional intelligence and genuine display of empathy and affection generated tremendous respect and loyalty from all quarters, and that was key to the Union overcoming these crises (4).  And overcome them they did.  The Confederate States eventually surrendered, Lincoln began the reconciliation of the North and South and crucially, he issued the emancipation proclamation which was the catalyst to slavery being legally abolished.  As leaders of your organisations, I urge you to follow Lincoln’s example and put your people at the very top of your list of priorities.  Here are some key principles to help you do this.   

First, understand the effects of the crisis on your team (the ‘three P’s’)   

Lincoln took the time to understand how the war and slavery was impacting his people.  You should do the same with this, or any future crisis.  It is essential if you are going to overcome it.  A crisis effects people adversely in three areas (the ‘three P’s’):   

Physiologically:  Most novel crises threaten people in a physical way.  Wars, natural disasters, financial crashes and, yes, outbreaks of disease, all carry the threat of injury, illness and potentially death.  Your job as a leader is to understand what these physical threats are and find a way to keep your people as safe from them as possible.  

Psychologically:  A crisis can trigger a range of psychological responses (5).  At the start of a crisis, people often feel high degrees of stress, anxiety and fear.   As a crisis progresses, look out for signs of depression, hopelessness and anger amongst your team.  It is also common for people to experience intense emotional responses including grief, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or critical incident stress (6).  Most people are in fight or flight for long periods of time and earlier traumas previously experienced can resurface.  As a leader, you cannot take these issues away from your people, but you can be a listening ear, minimise additional stress in times of immense difficulty and show your people empathy and compassion.  Left unchecked, psychological issues can decrease physical health and performance levels.   

Performance:   Without your intervention, a crisis will have a negative impact on your team’s performance (7).  Fears about their personal safety, the wellbeing of their loved ones, losing their job, and general helplessness about the situation can impact morale, motivation, productivity and reduce creativity and innovation.  This will lead to a collective downing of tools amongst your team.  Watch out for potential cultural issues here including your people’s ability to connect with their colleagues.   

All threpe of the P’s above are interlinked so leaders must consider them all.  The good news is that many of the principles I list below will positively impact all three P’s simultaneously.   

Make sure your people are safe  

You must, must, must prioritise the physical safety of your team and your service users.  Nothing is more important than that.  Act rapidly, don’t wait for the Government to make it mandatory.  If you wait, you could put your people at risk and send them the message that the organisation matters more than they do (8).   

You may need to tell people not to come into their normal workplace as has been the case during this pandemic.  In such cases, you must do everything you can to make sure your team can work effectively at home.  In other novel crises, including wars, natural disasters and terrorist attacks, you may decide to move your operations to different offices or find safe spaces in different locations.  

For some organisations, including charities with frontline missions, sending staff home has not been possible.  In such cases, you must adopt clear safety standards to minimise the risks of physical harm.  For example, you should mandate social distancing, regularly sanitise the building(s) you are operating from, mandate regular hand washing and face masks and/or create new ways of working to minimise unnecessary contact.  The same will need to be done when the Government allows people to go back into their work premises.  Stay up to date and informed with the latest recommendations via the Health and Safety Executive.

Let empathy and compassion infuse everything you do 

An exceptional crisis leader will have high levels of empathy (an appreciation and willingness to understand what their people are going through) and compassion (the desire to do something about it).  Demonstrating empathy and compassion during a crisis has been shown to lower team members stress and limit adverse physical symptoms, whilst improving work performance and productivity (9).  A perfect tonic to the adverse impacts on the ‘three P’s’.   

How can you demonstrate empathy and compassion?  First, make sure you have personal conversations with your team members.  This means you will need to create informal, unstructured time on a one-to-one and group basis with your team so that they can share their struggles.   

If you identify people that are really struggling, find ways to show your genuine compassion for them. Abraham Lincoln would personally visit hospitals on a regular basis to visit those who had suffered injury in the Civil War.  When the wife of a terminally ill employee at Cisco Systems was so overwhelmed with caring for her husband that she couldn’t make him his favourite meal on his birthday, the company’s Senior Vice President, Barbara Beck, cooked the meal and personally delivered it to their house (10).  Compassion really does make a difference.   

Finally, if an employee’s performance levels have dropped or they make a major mistake, give them leeway.  They need it.  Despite huge opposition from military leaders, Abraham Lincoln signed hundreds of pardons for many young men who were sentenced to death for deserting the military.  He took compassion on them, understanding that the harrowing experiences of war can frighten anybody (11).  This created a strong sense of loyalty from soldiers and their family members to Lincoln, which ultimately proved decisive in the war against the Confederate army and the abolition of slavery.   

Give your people meaning – the power of vision  

Regularly reaffirming your organisations vision or mission in the midst of a crisis can help to reduce the adverse effects on your people’s ‘three P’s’.  For example, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (12), which set out his vision for a better post-war USA, is widely said to have galvanised and inspired an entire nation to victory after one of its deadliest battles (13).    

A great vision clearly articulates what future and better world your organisation exists to create and a good mission statement explains what you will do to create it.  In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s vision was for a Country in which all people would be free and united as one great nation led by a single Government that cares for its people (paraphrased).   

Reminding your team about your organisations vision / mission will positively impact them in many ways:  

  • It will help them to focus their mind on serving others rather than their own personal fears and anxieties.  This is a well-established cure for overcoming the anguish caused by a crisis.   
  • It will help them to attach meaning to their tasks, which are likely to have been made more complex and potentially more dangerous because of the pandemic. This is particularly important if you are asking your team members to put themselves at greater risk by being on the frontline.  Studies show, for example, that telling a Soldier why they have to do a particular task during wartime decreases the risk of them suffering PTSD later (14).   
  • It will also give your people a sense of belonging, reaffirming that they are not alone whilst promoting teamwork and togetherness.  Studies show that this will reduce the potency of mental health responses (15).   

Beyond vision – great leaders excel at holding 

Having a well-articulated, powerful vision is vital but it will not, on its own, get your people through this crisis.  They need more from you.  To make your leadership whole, learn the art of holding (16).  Holding is a psychological concept that describes the way a leader contains and interprets what is happening in difficult and uncertain times.  Containing refers to the ability to soothe distress and interpreting is helping others to make sense of what is going on.   

What does this look like in practice?  Imagine you are an employee of a UK charity that provides free mentoring to fatherless kids.  The Government orders a lockdown to combat the pandemic and all of your events and meet-ups are suddenly cancelled.  Your CEO then immediately sets up a video meeting for all employees.  They begin by reaffirming that your vision has not changed – you still exist to help every fatherless child in the UK to grow into healthy, thriving adults.  They then give an honest assessment about the pandemic and what it means for you and the organisation.  For example, cancelling your events will cut 20% of your income and that will impact the number of services you can provide (interpreting).  They acknowledge your fears about your health and job security and outline what they are doing about it, namely, asking you to work from home.  They state that working from home presents you with new challenges and reassure you that they do not expect the same levels of output for a few weeks whilst you get used to the new routine (containing).  They repeat this process as new information comes up during the crisis.   That CEO is holding their team well.   

That was the genius of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Yes, he presented a compelling and clear vision for how the USA would look if they won the Civil War but not before he helped his people to understand what was happening (interpreting) and helping them to process their loss, grief and suffering (containing).  Nobody will ever feel inspiration if they don’t first feel secure.     

Communicate, communicate, communicate 

Frequent communication reduces fear and uncertainty and ensures that your team understand your important messages.  As a rule, most leaders need to communicate with staff far more often than they think is necessary.  In fact, it is impossible to overcommunicate in a crisis.  You may be tired of your own voice and worry that your team feel the same, but the reality is your people need to hear these messages multiple times, usually through different channels.   

As mentioned above, Abraham Lincoln spent 75% of his time meeting with people of all ranks and backgrounds.  He visited troops on the front line, had dinners with key staff, toured the hospitals and kept an open door for visiting citizens.  You will also be comforted to know that Lincoln had to communicate with his frontline military leaders remotely!  He spent many hours sending and receiving telegrams, and as the enemy didn’t have this technology, this proved vital in winning the war (17).   

How can you communicate well when your team are scattered and working from home?  Start by scheduling in regular meetings.  If possible, do this at a specific and unchanging time every day.  Initially, I would recommend that you do this daily.  When things settle down, every other day will suffice.  Hold one-to-one informal chats with team members no less than once per week (in most cases a quick phone call with do).  The purpose of this is to establish how they are doing on a personal level.  If your team is large, allow individual managers to make these calls to their team members.    

I also highly recommend you do a weekly or fortnightly ‘CEO briefing’ for everyone in the organisation.  This can be a short five-minute review of the fortnight outlining the successes and setbacks of the organisation as well as celebrating the victories of individuals and teams.  It is wise to also provide regular written communications to update the team on your ongoing responses to the crisis.   

At all times be honest (even if the news is bad), authentic, empathetic, demonstrate realistic optimism and be crystal clear.  It may seem like a lot of work but it will be worth it.   

Grief in the workplace 

If you do not know how to handle grief in the workplace, now is the time to learn.  Sadly, a crisis increases the likelihood that at least one your team will experience loss.  The unfortunate fact is that most leaders know how to celebrate births and birthdays and can handle minor personal issues, but when it comes to death they understandably fall silent and don’t know what to do.  The consequence for your grieving team member is a more intense and longer lasting mourning which erodes performance in the short-term and diminishes commitment and loyalty to the organisation thereafter.    

I will write a separate article on this topic soon because it deserves more detail but here are some key principles to help you better manage your grieving workers.   

First, be present.  Do not grant compassionate leave and then go silent on the matter.  Have the courage to pick up the phone and check in on them.  Do not try to fix the issue, you can’t.  If welcomed, and allowed, make a personal visit.  Follow up with a call or visit a couple of days after the funeral when a person most needs some support and clarity.  Your objective here is simple:  to let your grieving team member know you care and you recognise the difficulty of their loss.   

Second, be flexible with compassionate leave.  In your first call or visit with your team member, tell them what the policy is for compassionate leave and reassure them that it is flexible. It may seem awkward to you, but your bereaved colleague needs clarity about your expectations. The average UK policy for paid compassionate leave is five days.  With respect, this is not enough time for most people.  It allows them to deal with the practical issues around death but it doesn’t give them time to process the loss.  If your resources are tight, consider offering leave-sharing schemes that allow employees to donate annual leave for those in need.  This is a wonderful offer that allows colleagues to help and the grieved worker to feel like they are supported by their teammates.    

Third, manage your employees return to work carefully.  Before their first day back, speak to them about their wishes.  What do they want you to tell their colleagues?  How do they want their colleagues to respond?  Do they want to pop in for an hour or two to see everyone so that their return to work is not too overwhelming?  Would it be helpful to work part-time for a few weeks?  Give your employee the choice – they will welcome the control.  Take time to brief your team on how they can best help this person to return to work.   

Finally, be patient.  Grief is a complex process that can lead to inconsistency in performance levels.  On Monday they may be joyous and ready to move on but then on Tuesday they may be overcome with sadness and hopelessness.  One moment they may be highly motivated to work, and the next moment they may struggle to get out of bed.  One day they may work hard and deliver incredible results for you and then a day later make spelling mistakes in a simple email.  At all times, they will be self-critical, and confused about why they are so inconsistent.  That is where you come in.  Let them know that you hold them in high regard, that their job is safe and that you expect inconsistencies in this season of grief.  That will be a huge relief to them.  I also recommend scripting small victories in times where their confidence is low.  Give them tasks that they are gifted at, give them a win, and thank them for their help.   

Lay offs   

The worst thing a leader has to oversee is lay-offs but sadly, for some, the Covid-19 pandemic has left them with no choice but to reduce the size of their workforce.  It should always be a last resort.  Your impulse to cut costs is understandable but you must consider all other options first.  Are there any other costs you can reduce?  Can you bring in money from a trust, emergency fund or wealthy supporter?  Are there any expensive services you run that do little to further your mission?  Consider all possible solutions.   

If you conclude that lay-offs are necessary, my heart goes out to you.  It is a remarkably painful thing to do for a leader.  Here are some tips to help you treat your employees with dignity, fairness and respect:  

  • Be visible and present.  Do not hide away or delegate this task to lower ranked roles.  You need to own this decision.  Have the courage to take the anger or sadness that your employees feel and be there for the affected employees and those who remain.  
  • Start by thinking about how you are going to deliver the news to your effected employee(s).  It must be done on a one-to-one basis.  The pandemic complicates things as the chances are you cannot do this in person due to social distancing measures.  Be aware that a private conversation at home can be difficult in lockdown as their family may well be at present.  Ask them to give you a time where they can have a private 15-minute conversation with you, even if that is after hours.  
  • Be clear and concise but human.  Don’t give into the temptation of giving them false hope.  If you need to lay them off at the end of the month, say so (with apologies).  It may seem cold but you need to let them process what you are saying.  Be ready to answer any questions about their notice period, redundancy packages and their benefits (e.g. pensions).   
  • In the same conversation, thank them for everything they have done for you.  Be specific about their hard work and achievements.  Explain to them why they are being made redundant.  Stress that it is not their fault and it is not about their performance.  It is because of an unforeseeable global crisis that nobody created.   
  • Infuse your conversation with genuine empathy and compassion.  Don’t make it about you.  Resist statements like, “this is really hard for me”.  Make it all about them.  Offer assistance like helping them to find new employment, providing excellent references and support, counsel and advice later on.   
  • Be transparent with your remaining staff.  They will look to you for comfort and an explanation.  Be aware that all of your remaining staff will be anxious about their own jobs.  Take the lead here and offer them a Q&A session where they can ask you anything without the risk of punishment.  This will help you to address peoples fears before they become rumours and gossip.  Be willing to absorb people’s frustration and tension at the situation.   
  • Look after yourself.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to punish yourself in this process.  Find an objective source that you can ‘vent’ to.  Eat well, try to get sufficient sleep, read a good book, spend time with loved ones and remember that you are not the only leader out there having to let your staff go.  Retain perspective amidst any criticism.  It was the only way you could keep the organisation afloat and the consequence of not making this decision would have been more job losses and no organisation left to lead the cause you exist for.   

A final word  

It is a great honour to lead people but, as you will already know, it is an enormous responsibility.  That is true in the good times but even more so during a crisis.  I want to encourage you to follow Abraham Lincoln’s leadership and focus much of your time, energy and resources on leading your people through this crisis.  You should do this because it is the right thing to do but let me also reassure you that it will also maximise your chances of overcoming this crisis, whilst simultaneously building an organisation that will thrive in the future.   

This was true for Abraham Lincoln, and it was true for the other great leaders we know and respect.  I am reminded of a story about James Dunne, one of three managing partners at the investment bank Sandler O’Neill (now Piper Sandler) (18).  Sandler O’Neill’s main offices were in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  The firm lost 40% of its staff (66 people) in the terrorist attack, including the Dunne’s other two managing partners.  Dunne reconciled this in his mind by creating his own personal mission:  to help the firm survive and deny the terrorists a victory.  

Dunne visualised his mission by looking at his two hands.  In one hand, he held Sandler O’Neill’s business concerns; in the other hand were Sandler O’Neill’s people.  He said that the more he led on the people issues – personally attending the funerals of the staff they lost, counselling his team through the losses, communicating regularly with them and many other efforts – the more the business issues seemed to take care of themselves.  This was because Dunne created an environment in which people were collectively motivated to come together and work towards saving Sandler O’Neill.   

Take care of your people and they will take care of your organisation.   

Remember, if you need any help doing this you can call on Cranfield Trust for free help.  Find out more, here.

(1)  Historic estimates vary suggesting between 618,222 to 851,066 lives.  For a full discussion, see:  Hacker, J.D, A Census-Based Count of the Civil War Dead, Volume 57, Number 4, 2011, pp.307-348: doi:10.1353/cwh.2011.0061 

(2)  There is some debate about the reason the Confederate States wanted to secede from the United States.  Some historians argue that it was due to the differing slavery ideologies, others claim it was about state rights and others claim it was both.  It should also be stated that there were definitely differing views within the Northern states about whether slavery should be abolished or not.      

(3)  See for example: Kennedy, J (2013) Abraham Lincoln:  Lessons in Leadership Central Library, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst & Phillips, DT (1992) Lincoln on Leadership:  Executive Strategies for Tough Times, Warner Books Inc, New York.   

(4)  Widely reported but see for example: Goodwin, DK (2018) Leadership in Turbulent Times: Lessons from the Presidents Simon & Schuster, USA 

(5)  For a detailed look at the psychological impacts of a crisis on people see:  Lewis, G (2006) Organizational Crisis Management The Human Factor, Taylor & Francis Group, Florida 

(6)  For an analysis of the more serious, long term conditions caused by crises, see:  Lewis, G (1994) Critical Incident Stress and Trauma in the Workplace, Routledge, New York  

(7)  See for example:  Howitt, A & Leonard, H Against desperate peril: High performance in emergency preparation and response, Communicable Crises: Prevention, Response, and Recovery in the Global Arena. Ed. Deborah E. Gibbons. Information Age Publishing, 2007. 

(8) In a recent survey by the public relations firm Edelman, 71% of respondents said they would lose trust in a brand forever if they believed it was putting profit or the organisation before its people.  You can read the report here:  

(9) See for example:  Scott, B.A, “A daily investigation of the role of manager empathy on employee well-being.” Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, Volume 113, Number 2, 2010, pp. 127-140.   

(10) Dutton J.E, Frost P.J, Worline M.C, Liluis, J.M and Kanov J.M, “Leading in Times of Trauma” Harvard Business Review, January 2002 edition.  

(11) Corroborated in multiple sources including Oates, S.B (1977) With Malice Towards None:  A Biography of Abraham Lincoln Harper Collins, New York   

(12)  Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address.” 1863. America’s Most Famous Speeches, by Dale Salwak, Random House, 1984. 

(13) See for example:  Sandburg, C (1939) Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Harcourt, Brace & Co, New York.   

(14)  There are multiple studies on this, for example:  Tsai, J, El-Gabalawy, R, Sledge, W.H, Southwick, S.M & Pietrzak, R.H, ‘Post traumatic growth among veterans in the USA:  results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study’, Psychological Medicine, Volume 45, Issue 1, January 2015, pp 165-179.  

(15)  Lewis, G (2006) Organizational Crisis Management The Human Factor, Taylor & Francis Group, Florida 

(16)  For more details on the concept of holding, please see:  Petriglieri, G, “The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership” Harvard Business Review, May 2020 edition   

See for example:  

(17)  McNulty, E & Marcus, L, “Are You Leading Through the Crisis…or Managing the Response?” Harvard Business Review, March 2020 edition 

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