A leadership survival kit for the coronavirus

As the world reacts to the spread of the coronavirus (covid-19), leadership is more important than ever. Beyond the biological threats to employees and their families, the psychological stress arising from the viral threat is potentially more concerning as this likely affects many more than will ever become seriously ill from the virus. Here I provide a "leadership survival kit," in five key behaviors leaders can take to manage the extraordinary psychological stresses resulting directly or indirectly from this rapidly spreading virus:

  1. Stay up to date -
    • with the spread and management of the biological threat. Not knowing what can be known about the epidemic and its management broadly and more locally will render anything else you say or do ineffective. You have a responsibility to know as much as possible from credible sources.
    • with your organization’s specific actions and resources for managing the physical and psychological threat. Beyond safe personal hygiene and behaviors that minimize the risk of transmission, you must be prepared to deal with widespread and significant psychological stress. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and other professional counseling services should be made aware and available to employees, all of whom will be concerned to varying degree. Be prepared for the likely possibility that these resources will be overtaxed and what alternatives may be helpful. Your organization should have an emergency activation plan and it should be customized for this specific event.
    • with the well-being of your team. You need to know who is experiencing impacts from the disease ranging from symptoms to confirmed cases. You and your organization need to know who’s afraid, who’s symptomatic and who’s infected in order to manage the reality in your team and company.
  2. Communicate early and often for both fact and feeling.
    • By staying up to date (per #1) you will be equipped to manage the range of biological and psychological experiences – hopefully preemptively. Uncertainty is at the root of fear and anxiety and knowledge and proactive behavior is the antidote. How you communicate will make a BIG difference. In order of impact from most effective to least effective, you should employ the following forms of communication:
      1. Face-to-face (Physical) – While insuring against the possibility of spreading the virus biologically, seek to reassure your team by your physical presence. Many behavioral cues are communicated beyond the spoken word or even visible behavior that video could record. Simply put, the fidelity of being on stage is much better than being on screen. Moreover, being physically present, without possibility of biological contamination, reassures those with you that there is no threat by your presence and that you are not overly stressed. Showing up with masks or other biological barriers should obviously not apply.
      2. Face-to-face (live video with real time interpersonal communication) – Facts and feelings can be communicated with good fidelity using today’s readily accessible means of this form of communication. All the best aspects of in-person communication apply (tone, exchange, posture, cadence, etc.), but will be diminished relative to literally being present. This is a good alternative.
      3. Phone calls – conference and personal. I list the two together because different circumstances render one or the other more effective. Efficiencies are a primary consideration when opting for personal calls over conference calls, but the group exchanges can be beneficial to some on the call who may not speak up or know the answer to a relevant question from another. Personal phone calls are best for expressing empathy, or sympathy. They also can help more with individuals you know or expect to react more than others for varying reasons.
      4. Team communication (written or taped) – I list this ahead of personal notes because these reinforce the team relationship at a time when social needs will be particularly high. It’s also the best way to assimilate and present facts and resources as they become available without risking thoughts that more may be being shared with selective team members.
      5. Personal check-ins – Similar to personal phone calls, these communicate personal concern and your approach-ability to team members. This is a way to “be in touch” when you can’t literally be in touch.
  3. Take care of yourself.
    • The simplest thing to remember here is that physical and psychological health are VERY related – what’s good for one is good for the other.
      1. Eat a healthy diet (nervous eating is notoriously bad for well-being)
      2. Exercise – studies prove that exercise protects against – and can ameliorate -- psychological distress
      3. Manage your emotions – meditation and mindfulness are proven techniques to self-regulate emotions and behavior
      4. Get enough sleep – many studies point to the importance of a good night’s sleep on one’s health, both physical and psychological
    • Fact: The behaviors and emotions of leaders transfer to members of the team.
        • How you handle yourself literally influences others. While this is true between any team members, it’s especially so for the leader relative to the team.
    • Ultimately, taking care of yourself is good role modeling and truly authentic leadership behavior which is essential in a crisis.
  4. Keep work flowing.
      • It's good for the organization and what's good for the organization is what makes for the potential to be good for the employee (i.e., finances).
      • It's therapeutic to the employee – and not just because it displaces or distracts individuals from psychological stressors like rumination and fear fueled gossip. Work provides a means of reinforcing one’s value to the organization and themselves and is a major contributor to a healthy psychological identity.
  5. Be authentic.
        • Express empathy and sympathy for your team, their family and associates – both in and out of your organization. You can’t make the biological crisis go away, so don’t pretend you can do it.
        • Acknowledge what you do -- and don’t -- know. Your team expects a real leader, not an actor.

This is neither an exhaustive list of means of managing emotions in a crisis nor is it a substitute for knowing, communicating and reinforcing good biological practices. It is hoped that these recommendations are helpful when a contagion like today’s coronavirus challenges the psychological well-being of so many – even if they don’t show it.

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