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Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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leading through crisis

How to lead your team through and beyond a crisis

Even the most resilient leaders and capable team members are under more than the usual amount of stress right now. If you ask your team to list what is causing them to feel overwhelmed, they might say:  the global pandemic, rampant and sudden unemployment, security and safety, especially in larger cities, uncertainty about whether or not their kids are going back to school, and feelings of isolation and loneliness. And those are just the ones we know about. Personal issues, such as caring for health-challenged family members or friends, conflict with those closest to us, and a general feeling of a loss of control may be contributing to emotional turmoil and lack of productivity.

Every crisis comes with its own set of challenges and changes. What can we as leaders do to help our teams get through the current and future crises?

Acknowledge the reality of the 6 stages of a crisis. Most people go through the first four stages of any crisis. Most of your teams are somewhere in these four stages. They may even cycle through all four stages before having coffee in the morning.

These are natural reactions to difficult situations.

  1. Stage 1: The first stage is rejecting the situation – the denial phase, where it is hard to understand that this crisis is even happening. Our first natural inclination is to deny that the problem is as big as it may be:
    “It is just like a bad flu.”
  2. Stage 2: The second stage is the recognition of the problem. This is where people start figuring out small adjustments they need to take to hunker down and survive in the short-term:
    “I can work from home.”
  3. Stage 3: This is followed by the realization that the crisis is larger and more severe than originally thought. In the realization phase, people shift their mindset. They accept that more permanent solutions need to be implemented:
    “I need better Wi-Fi if my entire family is going to need internet access for work and homeschooling.”
  4. Stage 4: Adapting to the new norm. The habenula, that part of our brain that controls behavior and actions, initially resists change, which accounts for the denial phase of a crisis. Once we get to the realization phase, people actually adapt fairly quickly, especially when those changes are mandated. This is when the resolution phase kicks in. The resolution phase is our optimistic perspective that tells us we will be okay. We rally: “We can support each other and get through this together.”
  5. Stage 5: Understanding the new reality. Bringing people together in large groups is going to be more difficult in the future. We will have to contend with the consequences of this virus for years, not weeks. People are driving less, and consuming less gasoline, which is driving down gas sales at convenience stores. People are also reluctant to go into larger stores, so that means there is opportunities for convenience stores to deliver more of their highest selling products on a more frequent basis. People are going to increase purchases at convenience stores to avoid larger stores with more people.
  6. Stage 6: The sixth phase of crisis mentality is where leaders need to focus. This is the realignment phase. This is where leaders understand that in the new reality, everything is on the table for change. Every product, process, and strategy is now re-examined. In the realignment phase, leaders need to ask questions like:

    What can I do to support my customers?

    How can I work cooperatively with my competition?

    Where can I improve my processes?

    What do we need to do differently moving forward?

    How do I need to change my leadership?

    What do my people need from me as we move to meet the new needs of the new reality?

In the new realignment phase, it is like buying a new car. When you buy a new car, you get a choice of exterior and interior colors, perhaps the seat fabric, and maybe a sound system option. In the new realignment phase, every single detail of the vehicle is on the table for change, to include whether or not it even runs on gasoline.

Understanding the new reality and moving forward into the new realignment phase can be daunting. This is why many people on your team may remain cycling in the first four phases. As leaders, we need to acknowledge where employees are, and help them cope with the stress involved with change.

One exercise that is helpful at a team meeting is to ask everyone to brainstorm on 10 ways the current crisis is positively impacting their life. Predicate this with the understanding that this does not minimize the severity of the situation, but what you’re trying to do is get people out of the myopic mindset of focusing on their own sadness and seeing the negative. This helps them look at the positive aspects and ultimately, helps them find the opportunities.

During a recent facilitated meeting, here were some of the positive outcomes people expressed:

“I’ve had time to be a better daughter for my aging parents.”

“I discovered that my youngest child has a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor.”

“My family is making a greater effort to enjoy each other’s company and get along by playing board games once a week.”

“I’ve reached out to colleagues in my field and reconnected with them on a deeper level.”

“Because we had to prioritize, we developed a new streamlined sales process.”


Most people stay in one or all of these phases throughout a crisis. Leaders and managers can help their teams cope with the stress of current situations by asking employees what phase they are in at the moment. This creates an opening for a dialogue. Key leaders need to move into the next two cycles of a crisis.

It is hard for people to see the silver lining during a prolonged crisis, and it is the leader’s job to guide them through it.



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