The Psychology Of Leading In Uncertain Times

Stepping up in the coronavirus era

This article was first published on March 19, 2020.

Editor's note: Oliver Wyman is monitoring the COVID events in real time and we have compiled resources to help our clients and the industries they serve. Please continue to monitor the Oliver Wyman Coronavirus hub for updates.

From global boardrooms to small start-ups, right now there is a demand across all workplaces for level-headedness, empathy, and effective leadership. Are there causes for concern? Absolutely. From hitting numbers, to juggling family responsibilities, and the economic outlook, more burning questions keep emerging every day.

As we know, unpredictability is bad for business and team morale, and coronavirus is causing tremendous uncertainty in our work and private lives. Yet, adding to the confusion is not going to solve any of these problems. Nor is it going to contribute to the recovery of our businesses, economy, or our health and happiness.

In unsettled times, leaders must take a closer look at their own behavior and ask if they are contributing to the panic. Or are we leading our teams and our communities into a more productive conversation?

Human dynamics are very predictable. Whether we are in a room together or operating from our homes through advanced technologies, it is hard not to be influenced by the current barrage of negative images we see from the outside world.

Now more than ever, most leaders understand the importance of stepping up and demonstrating responsibility. But, where to start? Here are three ways we believe leaders can turn panic into productivity: 

Now more than ever, most leaders understand the importance of stepping up and demonstrating responsibility. But, where to start?

Beware of Destructive Patterns

What drives our behavior in a crisis? Psychology research shows that our biases intensify when subjected to the vicious cycle of news during situations like this one. We have almost 200 biases that rule our cognitive abilities on a regular basis. Heightened threats, such as the coronavirus, mean three of them become most active.

Currently negative bias is at play, which provides focus on gloom-ridden news and events. With a plethora of opportunities to get hooked online or through cable TV, our brains are flooded, and we actively seek more and more.

Availability bias becomes heightened, where we struggle to let go of what we’ve just observed. Right now, the implications of the coronavirus on our professional and private lives are highly disturbing, and our attention begets even more attention. 

Finally, our confirmation bias kicks, in and we actively seek more and more negative news to confirm all of the beliefs that support our negativity and availability biases.

It’s not just our biases that influence us. Our emotions also play an outsized role in virtually all our decision making. Thankfully, our emotional filters let us make countless, complex decisions quickly, without engaging in an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis. Unfortunately, when our emotional foundation is being pummeled by news cycles and our cognitive biases, we can quickly spiral into negative feedback loops and destructive patterns.

If we want to turn our businesses and economy around, how we lead is critically important. It helps to understand our biases objectively and also how our emotions are shaping our decisions. Meta-observation is tricky when you’re under this type of stress; however, taking time to practice mindfulness efforts and conscious breathing can help us gain perspective, clarity, and a willingness to focus on the challenge in front of us.

Although it is important for leaders to be well-informed of current events, make the flow of updates less overwhelming by checking the news at the end of the day, rather than at every opportunity. Consider limiting time on social media, and blocking or muting some of the more alarmist commentators. Continue to take deep breaths, seek out good news stories, and share these with colleagues or friends. Taking regular breaks to manage emotions, and, where safe, get fresh air and physical exercise. If this isn’t possible, adapt your work environment, such as separating spaces at home for work and down-time.

Empathize and Recognize

Many of our reactions right now are influenced by our bodies’ innate fight-or-flight mechanisms, and our brains simply aren’t effective in a state of fear. Hormones, including noradrenaline and cortisol, impair our executive function, and make it nearly impossible to recall and remember basic information.

It is critical to re-establish a foundation of psychological safety. This is not merely about communicating travel policies and reminding people to wash their hands (which is necessary but insufficient). Instead, empathic leaders need to listen carefully to fears and concerns, address them in whatever productive way they can, and make sure that people are heard and supported.

The resulting change in neurochemistry — decreasing hormones like noradrenaline and cortisol and instead increasing the release of oxytocin — means the chemical factories of our brains start to work for us rather than against us. Teams are consequently better equipped to start calmly working around the range of issues that are emerging by the day.

When designing solutions or preparing your messaging, it is vital to show empathy. Be human and authentic by openly sharing personal challenges or experiences. Acknowledge this is an unprecedented and unpleasant situation, but that everyone is in it together.

Remote collaboration tools and virtual environments will help us ensure business continuity for a good part of 2020. However, it is important to not allow these video meetings to be dominated by multi-taskers who remain in a crisis mindset. Before we can engage effectively in the virtual world, we need to check in with one another, creating moments on calls for informal conversations, or developing support networks through buddy partnerships. People need to feel safe and protected to be productive.

We must remind our colleagues about our organization’s ambitions, reassuring ourselves that we will come out of this situation stronger and better emotionally equipped.

Encourage Small Sprints

What practical measures can leaders take to provide a focus for productivity? One of our facilitation tricks is taken from the world of sprints, hackathons, and from the principles of co-creation.

Rather than getting your teams online for another update, alignment meeting, or to address a set of issues, devise a broader challenge that may take weeks or months to address. By inviting colleagues into solving a customer or societal challenge that demands creativity, we can channel our fears through a communal process that’s oriented toward solutions and progress, providing a focus on productivity over time.

In the sprint world, we break apart challenges into their most logical sub-components, and give the pieces to task-centered teams to solve for. Consider all of the stakeholder and root cause analyses that need to be performed right now, and the number of offerings to be redesigned for virtual access. Consider using small groups, creating ideas in rapid-cycles, where teams can iterate with one another and stay connected to the higher purpose and their customers’ needs, working toward these timely solutions.

The Path Forward

As humans, we are built to survive through highly stressful situations. Coronavirus is unprecedented in its scope and impact, but as leaders, we can be a force for good. Creativity and productivity are our responsibility, and a pandemic doesn’t give us a free pass. In contrast, the health crisis is asking us to lift ourselves and our colleagues to higher levels of thought and effectiveness. We can accelerate a positive path forward by taking control of our brains, caring deeply for those around us, and managing the challenge in a way that brings out the best, rather than the worst, in our collective humanity. 

Editor's note: Oliver Wyman is monitoring the COVID events in real time and we have compiled resources to help our clients and the industries they serve. Please continue to monitor the Oliver Wyman Coronavirus hub for updates.