2020 will be forever present in peoples’ minds as the year of physical and social isolation. The enormity of this global “imposed experiment” of learning as we go is not lost on anyone, as isolation and a digital way of life become the new norm, at least for the moment. How do we bridge the gap between the human and the digital aspect? How do we draw up an action plan?

Discussing and exchanging ideas with leaders during these testing times reveals very clearly the need for clarity and focus, which is hard to fulfil when our brains are in ‘threat’ mode amidst the ongoing uncertainty. The rug has been pulled from under us from a business, economic, social and personal perspective. This constitutes a major change – and an imposed one at that – and we are in a real crisis, one that forces a paradigm shift in both leadership and mindset across the board.

Crisis management is challenging, and humans crave certainty and control over their environments. They also crave human interaction, called ‘relatedness’ in David Rock’s SCARF model, which means belonging to a “tribe.” We often discuss crisis management and train our leaders for strategic scenario planning, managing and leading through uncertainty and creating high-performing, psychologically safe teams. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for the current circumstances. We have all had to hit the ground running and try new things. You might call this a ‘design thinking’ experiment on an unprecedented scale.

As we know, innovation comes from constraints. Likewise, there are opportunities to be seized in a crisis, but our minds need to be open enough to see and act upon them creatively. What if we were to focus solely on these opportunities? What if we were to move towards a more collective focus to bring about positive and sustainable change?

Collaboration is the only way forward. Indeed, the rise of digital has already brought this subject to the fore in organisations: digital platforms and the associated business models call for more distributed leadership and peer collaboration, as well as wider and more closely knit ecosystems. The shift from traditional relationships (client/supplier) to more of a partnership structure is already underlining this need for real collaboration in external ecosystems, and in internal ecosystems, we are seeing a tendency towards leaner, more agile structures. How does the culture and leadership of an organisation deal with the need for both change as well as more distributed and conscious leadership as we navigate unprecedented and uncertain times?

As leaders, there are 3 main areas to be thinking about:

1. Clarity

Be proactive, thoughtful and intentional in what and how you communicate, and how you frame the current challenge. How you choose to communicate and engage with your people will transform the perception, behaviours and decisions of your people. It will also transform the way they feel about their tribe. Leaders need to be clear and candid about what they can and cannot control. Establishing what is and isn’t certain in the current situation, and going back to basics, are both good ways to simplify and clarify priorities in this new environment.

Leaders need to stay focused and make sense of what is happening for their people, and it is not just what you say, but also how you say it. Reassure your team, be clear on what you know and what you don’t know. One of the trickiest things is scenario planning in an environment when you don’t have all the information and the stakes change almost daily.

Focus on communicating facts – be truthful and honest and show vulnerability. This will in turn create the psychological safety for people to be authentic and maybe even reciprocate. Finally, constantly realign with your vision, explicitly underline where people are adding value and to which short-term objectives.

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2. Empathy, empathy, empathy….

Never has the need for empathy been greater or more obvious as we move from performance to survival. We see in the response of the global political leaders those that approach the crisis with empathy and those that do not. Reach out to your people and acknowledge their needs, fears and hopes. Constantly put your sense-making into that framework to create stability and familiarity for your team.

Address their emotions and create a space where people can express how they feel, and where they feel valued and safe enough to have those conversations. Working remotely is not just about doing the same thing digitally, but also about crafting a ‘new experience’ for your teams and employees – a different way of working.

Empathy not only empowers people but also allows them to reframe and understand where they and their value proposition fit into this new situation. Be mindful of the emotional landscape in meetings (however big or small those meetings may be). Observe behaviours and reactions and give people space to react, or not… Sharing some of your feelings is also a powerful invitation for your team to do the same and will lay the foundations for moving forward.

3. Agility

Agile is a major business buzzword and therefore clearly has many incarnations. However, crisis management brings with it the need to be clearer and more agile than ever, and forewarned is forearmed. Things don’t have to be perfect before you deliver or communicate them – quite the opposite in fact. Constantly reviewing and realigning strategy and short-term objectives is key to facilitating grander, mid-term thinking. Taking the time to involve people continuously in the process and asking them what works, what doesn’t and what you could do differently is simple but effective. Agile is above all a mindset: embracing challenges and getting to grips with the unknown, failing, learning and iterating along the way.

Check in with your teams and peers on a regular basis – not only on the operational objectives and what they are thinking, but also what they are feeling.

Try mobilising your teams differently, empowering them more and asking for their input on how they think things could be done or where they may need support to work differently.

Take advantage of these changes to normalise cognitive and emotional processes that were not acknowledged or present previously to lay the foundations for a sustainable growth mindset.

It is often simple actions that can have the most impact:

Visualise progress and feelings wherever possible – on virtual white boards, or shared collaborative documents or other visual tools and techniques…

Small is beautiful – take the time to test new approaches and ways of working together with your networks/teams.

Ask your team what works and what doesn’t in this new environment.

Intentionally enact behavioural change by modifying cognitive habits and creating a more inclusive environment. Put in place new reference systems for subjects that are not necessarily openly discussed today, such as mental health, emotions in the workplace, feedback or creating learning opportunities.

We often forget that alongside our rational and critical-thinking brain, we also have a limbic reptilian brain. The same brain, which when triggered by stressful situations, makes emotionally volatile decisions and is consumed by fearful short-term thinking.

Putting this framework in place and constantly realigning with it will create a safe, more stable place for your team, where they can move their brains away from the ‘limbic’ functions of threat, fear, short-term thinking and overthinking. If we translate this into the workplace, what would it mean?

This new ‘normality’ brings with it the need for short-term stability, reassurance and resilience. The way your team delivers has inevitably changed and they will see and feel that, but this should not detract from the “big picture”. What opportunities does this open up in terms of the way you do business? the way you interact as a team? the way you deliver and live your vision? the way you define your individual and collective purpose?

Invite your teams to ponder these questions together to develop a more mid-term vision. What can we do? What can we learn from this situation? What new skills do we need to develop (individually and collectively) vis-à-vis current skills? Who can I/we collaborate with, and how?

We all need to look ahead and create the right support systems and mindset to start experimenting and verbalising what the new normal may look like when we come out the other side.