Leading Teams Through the COVID-19 Crisis

“Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.”
managing the team

Proper planning prevents poor performance!

Successfully defusing a crisis situation (such as the spread of COVID-19) requires a structured response in the form of a Crisis Management Plan (CMP). Such plans can essentially be viewed as a type of Change Management Programme. For sure the ‘change’ is unexpected, unwanted and damaging, but the essence of the situation is that we find ourselves at point A and want to get to point B as soon as we can. These CMP’s can encompass the whole organisation and/or simplified versions of a CMP can be produced for individual departments.

The ‘good’ news is that Crisis/Change Management Techniques are well understood, while the bad news is that those techniques are often poorly applied e.g. research by the Gartner group suggests that 28% of change efforts are abandoned before it is completed, and 80% are not used as initially planned or intended.

In a crisis that sort of failure rate can’t be tolerated. The successful execution of a Crisis Management Plan requires that leaders demonstrate confidence, commitment and courage. While the actions that come out of the plans themselves have to be quick, based on good data, detailed, and demonstrate a level of empathy for those affected by the crisis. There must also be the right frequency and level of communication to all key stakeholders based on clear, truthful, consistent messages.

The main elements involved in doing this well are:

  • Responding to the crisis with a sense of proportion
  • Developing a Vision for the future beyond the crisis
  • Scoping the projects needed to realise the Vision
  • Getting the communication plan right
  • Being a role model for how to cope in a crisis
  • Managing employees’ stress reactions

Let’s look briefly at each of these factors in turn…

Responding with a sense of proportion

The COVID-19 pandemic creates many challenges for managers and their employees, including; enforced changes in work patterns, sudden shifts in priorities, and disruption to business models. All of this creates doubt, uncertainty and stress. In this type of scenario, the role of the manager in creating a sense of calm and forward momentum is of crucial importance to ensuring the sustainability of the company and the wellbeing of employees.

The primary challenge is to avoid either:

Intervention Bias (over reacting) – making rash decisions, setting overly ambitious or unachievable goals, proving an overwhelming ‘avalanche’ of information.


Abdication Bias (under reacting) – avoiding responsibility, blaming others, underplaying the situation, not taking necessary decisions, providing no information.

The goal, rather, is to respond with a sense of proportion i.e. to take measured action, based on good quality problem solving processes. At the centre of this measured response is the development and implementation of a structured Crisis Management Plan.

Developing a Vision
(Eyes on the prize)

The phrase ‘eyes on the prize’ became popularised by the Civil Rights movement in the US during the 1950’s and 60’s. It means that we should remain steadily focused on an overall goal and not become distracted by side issues. In times of crisis this sense of working towards some desired ‘end state’ or outcome is especially important. People need to have a sense of what they are supposed to be working towards in order to orientate themselves and focus their efforts where they will do the most good. This means that one of the primary roles of the leader is to provide a Vision for how the crisis will be resolved.

Of course, in a volatile and uncertain situation, developing a clear Vision of how to resolve the crisis can be difficult, but the leader’s job is to be able to clearly articulate what people should be working towards. One way of doing this is to break things down into stages e.g. to have a Vision Statement for the first 30 days, and then 60 days, 120 days and 1 year after the start of the crisis. These Vision Statements should be clear, concise and (hopefully) compelling.

E.g. Over the next 30 days we will make sure that everyone is comfortable with remote working practises, has access to up to date information and we will also prepare a detailed financial model of the effects of the crisis on our business. In addition, we will set up a series of Project Teams to work on specific ‘hot topics’.

Scoping projects

The CMP will be made up of a series on interlinked mini-projects, that will usually be scoped and managed by a Steering Committee.

Some of these projects will be Technical Projects e.g. experiments/analysis of specific technical challenges, modelling of financial impacts, developing IT platforms/infrastructure, reviews of legal obligations, Public Relations activities, etc.

Others will be psychological in nature or Cultural Projects i.e. they will be to do with handling the ‘human side’ of crisis management e.g. maintaining employee morale, giving confidence to regulators or other formal bodies that things are under control, managing investor relationships, engaging with customers, suppliers, and (if appropriate) the general public etc.

In addition, these mini-projects will typically cover two broad phases: (a) the Initial Response to the crisis, and (b) Repair Activities e.g. reinvigorating the organisation, reputational repair actions etc. once the crisis has abated.

As with any project, the appropriate staffing, resourcing and monitoring progress of these activities is at the heart of organising a successful response to the crisis.

Getting the Communication Plan right

Gossip, rumour and misinformation can spread like wildfire during a crisis, so having a firm grip on the messages that people are hearing and making sure they are timely, accurate, helpful and truthful is a core competency in a crisis management situation.

One way of organising the communication strategy is to use a Message Grid. This involves taking a calendar and working out who you want to talk to, about what topic, on what days and specifying both who and how to deliver each message.

For example, you might decide upon: talking to all employees, about how the CMP is rolling out, every Tuesday at 10am for 15 minutes, delivered by the CEO, via a video conference.

The messages themselves can follow the Point, Message, Support, Action Format…

  • Point – What is the headline statement?
  • Message – Script the key details of the message
  • Support – Is there an anecdote and/or data points, to support the message
  • Action – What is the call to action

It is also worth noting that research (Taylor and Kent 2007) suggests that having a specific website (or website section) is best practice action in a crisis, as it provides a focal point for people to get up to date, reliable news.

Being a Role Model

People look to their leaders as role models for how they themselves should behave in times of crisis. As such, leaders need to (i) project self-confidence and show a positive mental attitude, and (ii) be willing to coach people when they are anxious or uncertain, guiding them through what is sometimes called the ‘zone of uncomfortable debate’.

Positive mental attitude

If the leaders show signs of panic, delay decisions and/or hide themselves away in times of crisis, then employees are likely to do the same. Thus, the manager or leader should be willing to take calculated risks, personally communicate key messages and do so with a sense of self-confidence and gravitas. Other messages can by handled by other managers, or via other channels, such as text or email or blog posts. The main thing is that the most senior leader sounds confident, stays visible and provides essential information in a timely manner.

Managing the ZOUD conversations

The “Zone of Uncomfortable Debate” or ZOUD is an idea developed by Professor Cliff Bowman at Cranfield University. It covers all those topics that either the leader, or the employee, feels anxious about raising and exploring. Often, they relate to fears, doubts, and worries that have no obvious answers, and where support, reassurance or encouragement is urgently required. The ability of the leader to tackle these concerns head on is crucial to building a positive atmosphere, and is a big part of running a successful Crisis Management Programme. To do this well the leader has to be willing to act as a coach who can work collaboratively with the employee, to jointly develop some possible answers to their questions.

The most commonly used model for this type of coaching is probably the GROW model. The origins of the GROW model are disputed but it was popularised by Max Landsberg in his 1996 book – The Tao of Coaching. When faced with an issue the manager works with the employee to go through four steps, during which, the manager (mostly) asks questions and the employee (mostly) provides the answers. The number and type of questions can be varied, depending on the situation, but the ‘classic’ framework is…

  1. Goals – OK you have issue X and given that is the starting point what is your desired outcome?
  2. Reality – What is the current position? What are the facts of the matter?
  3. Options – What are the choices for moving forward? (Be as open and creative as you can.)
  4. When – What are the next steps and when will they be taken?

Managing employees’ stress reactions

In times of crisis people will (very naturally) be anxious. Often, they will become fixated on the very worst possible outcomes (what is called ‘catastrophising’) and also go over the same fears again and again and again (a harmful process called ‘rumination’).

The skilled Leader needs to:

(a) understand that both catastrophising and rumination are likely to occur, and
(b) act to address them.

Methods for doing this include:

  • Emotional Labelling
  • Cognitive Reframing
  • Change Forums

Emotional Labelling

Most people are not fully aware of their feelings or emotional states, and they typically have a limited vocabulary to describe their moods. In a stressful situation this means that people typically feel ‘bad’ but have little sense of control over what is happening to them. One simple, but effective, way to improve things is to ask the person to explicitly name or label their emotions. This matters because the better someone is at labelling their emotions, the more control they have over them.

So, giving the emotion a name, just accepting that feeling for what it is and then (maybe) starting to think differently about (or reappraise) the negative feeling can be very therapeutic. For example, studies by UCLA show that labelling an emotion decreases activity in the amygdala (the brain’s fear centre), while increasing activity in the right prefrontal lobe (the area involved in making judgements) and so lessens ‘emotional reactivity’.

To use this technique the manager simply…

i. asks the employee to say, out loud, how they are feeling, then
ii. validates that feeling e.g. “Yes, it’s normal to feel (anxious/nervous/upset) in this type of situation”, and
iii. just leaves it at that or – if it seems appropriate – asks the person how they might manage that feeling e.g. “Could you find a way to reduce that sense of anxiety/worry/anger” etc. If you want to know more try this article from Psychology Today.

Cognitive Reframing

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Cognitive Reframing is a strategy for coping with negative events. It can be used in counselling, therapy, problem solving, creative thinking, coaching and strategy development.

The idea is that when something happens we make a snap decision about what that ‘thing’ means for us i.e. we assess or ‘frame’ the meaning of that event. For example, if you have planned a family picnic and on the day of the outing it is pouring with rain, you might (quite reasonably) ‘frame’ this as a ‘bad’ event and feel disappointed and frustrated.

In this scenario the negative emotions (e.g. annoyance, sadness) release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream that upset your biochemistry and mood, but don’t improve things one iota. Reframing means we take the situation (e.g. a cancelled picnic) and give it a different meaning by changing the way we think about it (e.g. it is a chance to take the family bowling, or swimming, or to the cinema instead).

Thus, Cognitive Reframing is about taking a challenging or unpleasant situation, accepting that event as a given, and choosing to make something positive out of it. This is a very old idea and we find it in many sayings and adages e.g. ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ or ‘it is an ill wind that blows no good’ or ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. It is also at the heart of the psychological theory of having an Internal Locus of Control i.e. the sense that you are not completely at the mercy of events but can (at least to some degree) act to improve your situation.

So, when employees bring up the challenges thrown up by COVID-19, e.g. the disruption to cash flow, the unfamiliarity of home working for many people, the challenges of unclear priorities etc. managers should acknowledge the issues but not allow people to fixate on them. Say to your staff something like… “OK, these issues are real, but we are where we are, and given that, what’s the silver lining here?… What opportunities does this situation present us with?”

For example,

During a cost reduction programme people are often asked to do ‘more with less’. How about ‘Reframing’ that and saying, “No, if we are cutting back on resources then let’s agree that we will do ‘less with less’.” Meaning we will stop doing anything that’s not essential.

Or the enforced home working driven by COVID-19 might be Reframed as an opportunity to drive down costs long term and give a better work/life balance.

The disruption to standard work patterns could be Reframed as a chance to action some projects/ improvements that have been sitting on a ‘wish list’ waiting for the ‘right time’ to address them.

Think about using Reframing to bring people’s focus back to their normal day to day tasks. So, yes there is a lot of disruption, but what can people be getting on with? Working on familiar tasks (to the extent that’s possible) is not only important from a business perspective, but is also reassuring for people and is a calming measure in and of itself.

Change Forums

One key tool for helping employees handle the psychological aspects of the crisis is to create Change Forums. A Change Forum is a meeting place, either face to face or virtual, where employees can discuss the issues that affect them and have some sense of control over what’s happening to them. There are a number of formats for these types of sessions, including the World Café Methodology and Action Learning Sets. Both options are good choices for letting people have a voice about how the crisis is handled, share ideas and build a sense of community.

Putting it all together

Leading a team through a crisis starts with developing a clear plan of action, based on a Vision for what a successful resolution will look like and a series of carefully scoped mini-projects, to address the technical and cultural challenges being faced.

It is also about having a coherent communication strategy, being a calm, confident, reassuring presence, and handling people’s worries and doubts by using Emotional Labelling, Cognitive Reframing and Change Forums.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how you are handling the issues thrown up by COVID-19 in your role as a leader. Are you managing your employees’ sense of worry or doubt? Are you providing a clear sense of direction? What improvements could you make to how you are managing your people in this challenging situation?


Read this article by the Institute for Public Relations on Crisis Management and Communications


Watch… this three-minute long video on Cognitive Reframing, with a very nice focus on the power of the ‘attitude of gratitude’ – as a way of improving mood and outlook.


Consider signing teams up to our Impact & Presence workshops as a way of developing gravitas and projecting self-confidence during a crisis.


If you’re a senior executive, maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, or our Remote Coaching Programme, would be a useful option for helping you improve your ability to handle a crisis?


Or gives us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And finally, remember that managing a crisis situation is never easy. It requires resolve, perseverance and determination if it is to be overcome, as captured in this couplet by the Danish polymath Piet Hein (1905-1996) …

“Problems worthy of attack,
prove their worth by fighting back.”