Lead Your Organization Through Crisis by Empowering Your People and Making Them a Priority

By Katrina Merlini, Program Chair, Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership

The coronavirus pandemic has led to unprecedented shutdowns of cities and entire countries, and, in turn, the suspension of business for many companies and new ways of working for others.

Formerly collaborative, in-house teams are now dispersed, linked by messaging apps and video conferencing. Many of those working from home also have young children who are now completing their schooling at home, meaning employees must split their attention and share their technology resources. Concerns for the health of elderly parents and friends, as well as their own health, along with the economic uncertainty triggered by civil lockdown orders adds additional layers of stress and anxiety.

In a crisis, there is no “business as usual” and everyone has to adapt. Your approach to leading and overall leadership style must adapt as well. By empowering and prioritizing your team members, you can lead your organization through this crisis.

Empower Your Team Members

The response to the coronavirus has been, “We’re all in this together.” Those words ring true for your organization now more than ever. You are unlikely to have all the answers, and, from your position, you may not even have the best view of the situation your team is facing “on the ground.” So, empower your team to help make important decisions and respond appropriately to these environmental changes. To empower your team to get the work done in the best way for them and/or for the situation, it’s imperative that you (1) set the course, (2) loosen the reins and (3) remove the hurdles.

1. Set the Course

Now more than ever, your team needs you to set the course for where your organization is headed. Even if the immediate course is unclear, you should have a sense of where your organization should be at the end of this crisis by defining and casting your organization’s vision. A vision provides direction for where the organization is going, even when the “how” is unknown. You may need to establish a new, short-term vision that captures priorities related to surviving this crisis. However, as Johnson and Suskewicz note in Harvard Business Review, it should still be compatible with your organization’s primary vision.

Setting the course for your team will align their focus and empower them to take action. As organizational change guru John Kotter John P. Kotter discusses in “What Leaders Really Do”, if everyone knows the intended direction of the organization, team members will be less hesitant to engage in new ways of performing to adapt to this crisis, as long as those new ways are consistent with the overall direction. They’ll also be able to focus their limited time and attention on what’s truly a priority rather than peripheral tasks.

When setting the course, be sure to be clear and consistent in your communication so your team members aren’t guessing or confused.

2. Loosen the Reins

If you are used to highly centralized decision-making, this will be the time to loosen the reins. Allow your team input into important decisions and/or the autonomy to make important decisions themselves. During times of crisis, organizations need to adapt quickly to new situations, and no one knows the situation better than those on the front lines. So, solicit their input and give them the autonomy to decide how to handle the situation.

Also, to the extent feasible, give your team greater discretion in how and when they complete tasks. For example, whole families are currently confined to home, with parents tasked with getting their kids set up to do their schoolwork from home before they can start their own work-from-home day. So, is a 9:00 a.m. briefing truly vital or an unnecessary burden to working parents? Work with your team to figure out the best timing for tasks or give them the autonomy to make those decisions themselves.

Remember, as long as you set the course, your team will be able to make decisions and work in ways that not only are best suited for the situation but are also are aligned with your organization’s goals. Importantly though, do not mistake autonomy for abandonment. Your input and perspective are still valuable to your team and they still need your support. So, you should loosen the reins but not let go of them entirely.

3. Remove the Hurdles

In his book Leading Change, John P. Kotter emphasizes that even when employees want to take action, there may be various hurdles that prevent them from doing so. So, it’s vital now more than ever that you remove hurdles to empowerment. For instance, work to ensure communication channels aren’t blocked and that information isn’t siloed. Opening communication channels, particularly across functional areas, will make your team better suited to adapt to changes and demands related to the crisis. If team members know how others depend on them, they’ll be in a better place to understand how new actions and adaptations impact one another and can accommodate appropriately.

Additionally, ensure your employees have the resources they need to be effective. Some may need training to learn how electronic communication applications work. Others may need equipment like web cameras or laptops to meet the demands of working from home.

Finally, going back to setting the course, aligning policies and procedures with the immediate direction will help reduce obstacles that delay or prevent teams from taking action.  Consider if any existing policies are out of alignment with the new direction. For example, if it’s custom to “build consensus” within the larger organization before you can act, this can be an unnecessary roadblock during a crisis.

“The best leaders adjust quickly and develop new plans of attack,” advises Nichols et al. in Harvard Business Review. You need to be skilled in recognizing when to “throw out yesterday’s playbook,” as “actions that previously drove results may no longer be relevant.”

So, be agile enough to deviate from processes that are out of alignment. Ultimately, when you align policies and procedures with the direction of the organization, they are less likely to come into conflict and become hurdles to swift adaptation.

Prioritize Your People

Before you can ask your team to execute on “pressing tasks,” it’s important to make sure they know that they are a priority. With so much uncertainty in the world, compassionate leadership is needed now more than ever.

Much of the urgency in preventing the spread of coronavirus has emphasized how one’s actions not only impact personal health (i.e. “stay home to stay safe”) but also the health and well-being of others. As an organizational leader, you “must maintain a focus on what’s most important: first, the health of your employees and their families, and second, the current state of the business,” advises Amy Leschke-Kahle in MIT Sloan Management Review.

Therefore, it is vital that you prioritize your people by (1) being flexible in meeting their needs and (2) increasing meaningful communication.

1. Be Flexible

Inspiring creativity and innovative solutions can be vital to keeping your business moving in these unprecedented times, but is “inspiration” your team’s greatest need right now? Or, do they need time off to tend to their health or that of their family?

Leaders must recognize that employees are being affected differently by this crisis – some are dealing with their own health issues, some are taking care of sick family members, and some are juggling caring for small children along with work.  Expecting everyone to be equally productive or contribute to the same degree they contributed prior to the pandemic is unrealistic. As both Ruchika Tulshyan and Doug Sundheim discuss in Harvard Business Review, leaders must offer greater flexibility to employees in dealing with these new challenges. Try to give more leeway where you can.

Further, team members may vary in their comfort levels with virtual communication. For example, more extroverted members may thrive in video calls while others stay silent.  According to Tulshyan, “Sending information in advance helps create opportunities for people to chime in — and not just those who are comfortable speaking while they think.” Also consider using closed captioning and chat features for those who may have difficulty hearing or are dealing with spotty Wi-Fi. Be flexible with your methods of communication to ensure you are hearing from and getting your message across to everyone.

2. Increase Meaningful Communication

“Projecting leadership and humanity in this crisis will involve you leveraging your individual expertise to help address the various evolving challenges…by embracing your duty to others,” writes Morela Hernandez. To help your team through these challenges, increase meaningful communication by providing organizational updates, resources, personal check-ins, and praise.

At the group level, be sure to share any organizational resources, such as employee health and wellness programs, that may be of use and communicate status of the organization and health of the business frequently (some experts recommend “at least daily”). The coronavirus-induced economic slowdown is starting to adversely impact profit margins and business development. Uncertainty causes stress and your team could be worrying about whether they’re one more week of quarantine away from being furloughed. Communicate frequently and transparently so you are not leaving your team in the dark.

At the individual level, make time to engage informally with your team members by checking in with them and actively listening to their challenges and concerns. The distinction between work and home life has never been more blurred, and it’s time to ask people how they are – how they really are. Remember to be vulnerable too. Not only will that help build trust, but you may also benefit from the connection and support of your team. Afterall, you are first and foremost a human who is also going through this crisis.

Finally, praise is also important during this time. So, continue to provide encouragement and recognition to your team members to help keep them going and feel valued during this crisis, as Professors Timothy Franz and Seth Silver advise.

You’ll Get Through This Together

These are challenging times for everyone and leading through this crisis can be especially difficult. As Hernandez emphasizes, “The choices you make in the coming days and weeks will contribute directly to the success of [your] response and recovery efforts.” So, connect, communicate and provide flexibility while also clarifying where you want to be post-pandemic, and work with your team to get there. By empowering your team to make necessary adaptations and prioritizing your people, you and your team will get through this, together.

Gain the critical leadership tools to guide your organization above and beyond crisis with Florida Tech’s online MA in Organizational Leadership program.


Get program guide
YES! Please send me a FREE brochure with course info, pricing and more!

If you would like more information relating to how we may use your data, please review our privacy policy.

By completing this form and clicking the button below, I consent to receiving calls, text messages and/or emails from BISK, its client institutions, and their representatives regarding educational services and programs. I understand calls and texts may be directed to the number I provide using automatic dialing technology. I understand that this consent is not required to purchase goods or services.

If you would like more information relating to how we may use your data, please review our privacy policy.

By completing this form and clicking the button below, I consent to receiving calls, text messages and/or emails from BISK, its client institutions, and their representatives regarding educational services and programs. I understand calls and texts may be directed to the number I provide using automatic dialing technology. I understand that this consent is not required to purchase goods or services.