What does effective leadership look like in times of crisis?

Professor Andre Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, offers advice on how leaders can provide crucial support to a virtual workforce.

As the world continues to grapple with a pandemic that has upended business operations of companies large and small, leaders have been given a tremendous opportunity to reflect on their organisational values, rethink strategic goals, and redefine business models that will endure long after the crisis is over.

As a leader, however, whether or not you emerge on the other side once the storm is over is determined by how effectively you respond during a crisis.

Professor Andre Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, outlines ways in which business leaders can address short-term problems while considering long-term results, and offers advice to keep virtual teams engaged and motivated from a distance.

“When leaders are faced with a crisis, they typically respond by doubling down on their existing style of leadership. If they were very directive before, they become even more directive after a crisis. Sometimes this works, but often it is dangerous.

“What works during normal times is often not what works during a crisis. Leaders need to show flexibility in their leadership style. They need to see the crisis not as a threat to them but as an opportunity to grow and learn as a leader, and provide adequate support for their people."

Address short-term problems while considering the long-term

  • Leaders often make cuts during a crisis. However, research shows that cutting some costs is useful to keep an organisation afloat but cutting other things which build long term value – like R&D spending and CSR – is not a good idea.
  • While staff layoffs are common in times of crisis, research has found that firms that fire as the first resort often end up in long term spirals of decline. Often it is better to reduce working hours or furlough staff. This means you don’t lose your talent who can help on the way back up.
  • Leaders tend to become more directive and centralised during a crisis. However recent research suggests that when leaders delegate more power, their organisations are more likely to survive a crisis.

Provide crucial support to your team

Often when a company is in turmoil, leaders distance themselves from their people. They feel like they have to be tough and avoid emotions. However, what people need is some degree of support and even ‘holding’ by leaders. That means leaders need to try to act as islands of stability and sanity in what can seem like an unstable and insane world. We know people tend to perform the best in crisis conditions when they feel there are some things they can rely on. Ratcheting up uncertainty and pressure in a team can make things worse.

Tips for managing a virtual workforce

  • Watch out for zoom fatigue - it is real, and there is plenty of research showing why Zoom meetings are important, but try to keep them short, well structured, take breaks between calls and consider switching off your camera when you can.
  • Virtual teams work best with an established rhythm - for instance, you might have weekly check-ins or certain milestones for coming together.
  • Most people will want different ways of working virtually. It is a good idea to check in with each team member you lead individually - even for 10-15 minutes. You can get a sense of how to get the best out of them.
  • One big challenge of virtual working is establishing boundaries between working and home time. You can help your team set meaningful boundaries - for instance, no emails after a certain time. Having people working all the time might seem good, but it is not sustainable.
  • You need to remember the basics of teams; getting the right size, ensuring everyone has clear roles, establishing clear norms within the team, the team has goals, it has the right resources to achieve its tasks, and that people feel psychologically safe to speak.

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