Leading change in crisis

Change at the best of times is difficult and creates fear and uncertainty, but during times of crisis it becomes overwhelming and sometimes paralysing. Weick (1995) defined crisis as “a cosmology episode which occurs when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together”.

Guiding organisations through responding to the crisis and the recovery from the crisis is no easy task; difficult decisions need to be made that impact both the social and the economic spheres with resulting direct and indirect consequences.

This is the time when leaders need to rise to the occasion and effectively lead and manage the change. This means mobilising the organisation and creating organisational environments in which employees are enabled to turn challenges into successes.

Leaders who manage change effectively put the organisational values into practice, they create visions for the future based on current realities and challenges, and they communicate effectively. Furthermore, they are able to turn division into unification and barriers into innovation while building leaders at all levels of the organisation. In order to develop trust and empower employees to solve problems and create new possibilities, it’s essential that leaders understand how crisis impacts employees so that they are better equipped to move them through it.

How crisis impacts employees

The biggest impact for employees is on the psychological dimensions, defined as the cognitive reactions and emotional responses to a crisis. For instance, feelings of fear and uncertainty and not knowing what is going to happen, having to navigate new circumstances and unknown parameters, stress as a consequence of little information and unstable work environments, chaos in terms of the loss of structure and predictability, grief over loss of life and possible loss of work and colleagues, and anger.

In highly emotional situations, employees may look for someone to blame and if leaders are not managing the change effectively, they could become the target of blame. Furthermore, if the behaviours of an organisation’s leaders are not aligned with its values, it results in anger and resentment, which then translates into apathy in team members.

The strength of the relationship between the organisation and the employee during this time and the employees’ sense of belonging will influence employees’ attitudes and emotions and, ultimately, how they behave. Additional elements of impact include how decisions will made during and after the crisis, the organisation’s culture and capability to handle the crisis and organisational learning in terms of how they handled crises in the past. In order to survive and recover, it’s necessary that leaders establish a change process for the organisation that will influence what the organisation does, the way it does things and how departments share information and communicate.

Actions for leaders during the response and recovery phase of the crisis

Attain a positive mindset

During times of crisis employees turn their attention to the leadership team for support and guidance, specifically in terms of hearing how leaders interpret the situation and what actions they will take to restore a state of normality. Since leaders set the emotional tone, it’s vital at this point that leaders display a positive mindset, inspire hope and confidence, and encourage employees to look for new possibilities. A positive mindset keeps minds and hearts focused and results in effective behaviour and results.

Form a coalition of leadership

This is the time for leadership teams to put differences aside, pull together and communicate consistently with ‘one voice’. The leadership team may need to review their responsibilities, attitudes, behaviours, personal leadership styles and, most importantly, their relationships with one another in order to rally behind a shared objective and chart the best way forward.

When employees perceive the leadership to be aligned, strong and in control, it inspires confidence, they feel encouraged and have greater faith in the change process and proposed way forward.

Create a vision for the change, but continuously reframe the situation

Leaders must obtain some clarity in terms of developing a vision for employees of what the organisation could look like during and after the crisis, what concerns are coming up and how they will be addressed and help employees see new possibilities in order to maintain some morale. A shared vision motivates the team, it creates a common identity and creates focus and energy. Furthermore, it’s important to establish a change process linked to the vision in order to guide employees through the change. It’s also important that employees believe in the change process.

Crisis situations are a definite test for leadership’s decision-making and strategic-thinking abilities, things that were not important yesterday could become critical today and leaders are often overwhelmed with the clutter of information. On the one hand, if leaders make decisions too quickly, they could be basing the decision on inadequate or inaccurate information. On the other hand, waiting too long for the right data set can result in analysis paralysis resulting in slow decision-making or no decision-making at all. 

Leaders need to navigate through complex and confusing data, and it’s important that the sources of data are qualified in order to provide more actionable intelligence. It’s also important to note that mistakes may be made during this period. For this reason, it’s key to be flexible, change course if required, make adjustments and keep moving forward.

Involve employees

This is the best time to involve employees in coming up with ideas, new ways of doing things and re-imagining the future of the organisation. In this way, employees feel valuable and significant because they are able to contribute, and this deepens their emotional connection to the organisation. It’s also important to generate as many ideas and new possibilities as possible. Middle managers also need to be onboard early and kept up to update so that they are enabled and motivated to facilitate the change process. Agile and Lean management systems work really during these times.

Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!

Communication during times of crisis is critical. This involves upward, downward and lateral communications. It may be worthwhile communicating all messages through one central person. It’s necessary to increase the frequency of communication during this time since employees generally need updated information more often and may wish to provide feedback.

Honest and transparent communication becomes paramount to building trust and settling uncertainty, which harnesses better employee understanding and support. Communications should focus on what is being done to minimise the consequences, it should involve some actionable advice in terms of explaining what should be done, by whom and why. Furthermore, if leaders consistently link to the vison and present a convincing story, they help create a dominant, more positive frame through which the situation can be seen and understood – resulting in more positive beliefs. Key messages need to be communicated 5–7 times in order to be understood and retained in employees’ minds.

Act with compassion

Expect people to act irrationally. Emotions are charged and people react to things in different ways. Compassion becomes key in terms of understanding the behaviour of others and the reasons why they are reacting the way they are. Compassionate leaders are able to see beyond the defensive behaviour and be objective and deal with employees in a supportive manner, promoting psychological safety.

Successful management of change in a crisis is not just about researching and planning contingencies but about developing strong change management capabilities within the organisation so it is enabled to react quickly and with flexibility when disruptions occur. The way an organisation responds to a crisis could be an opportunity to learn as well as to build its reputation. This also provides an opportunity for top managers to learn and foster change management skills and correct previous organisational dysfunctions so that going forward the organisation is stronger.


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Weick, K. (1995), Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage Publications Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA.