How to Lead Your Team in a Crisis

What Your Team Really Needs to Hear You Say

In any crisis—whether it’s COVID-19, the 9/11 attacks, or the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2010—leaders have to act. Leaders need to act decisively and do what’s necessary to navigate through it. At the same time, leaders have to communicate. They need to explain what’s going on and provide their team with perspective.


Max DePree said that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. It is important for you to take the time to put the situation in context so that your team can properly interpret what is happening. Since you are the leader, they need you to act like the leader—and communicate like the leader.

Here’s how you can lead your team in a crisis by telling them what they need to hear.


1. Tell the truth


Give your team an accurate picture of what the situation is. Don’t sugarcoat the scenario. And don’t try to blow sunshine in their direction. Your team needs to know what’s really going on. And they need to hear it from you.

Truth is vitally important—especially in that moment. Your team’s trust in you lies in the balance. This is your opportunity to explain that you have a full handle on the scenario. And if you don’t have a good handle on it, then tell them that. And tell them what you are doing to make sure that you will have a good handle on it.

As I explain in my first bestseller, Dear Boss: What Your Employees Wish You Knew, “your team would rather hear the hard truth and then get it over with than to be fed an untruth that they discover later wasn’t the real story. In addition, not telling the hard truth early will ultimately damage your relationship with your team.”


2. Communicate constantly


Be willing to communicate as often as it takes to give your team an accurate picture. Tell them when you learn that the situation has changed. When you have no news to share, tell them that too. They will trust you more when you when they know that you are telling them all there is to tell.

As I explain in Dear Boss, “There will be fewer stabilizing influences during upheaval and change, and they will be craving more information to understand what’s going on. Even though you may have less information available to share, this is a time that you will want to share what little information you have—and do it more often.”

In a crisis, people will be so starved for information that they will listen to rumors and pass them along. Be proactive in meeting their desire for information. That can prevent the rumor mill from starting in the first place.


3. Reassure your team


It may seem that reassuring your team contradicts the standard of telling the truth. On the contrary, it complements it. Now, do not say unfounded platitudes to make your team feel better. But do give them reassurance in context of what you know to be the truth.

As Jim Collins explains in Good to Great, it’s important to abide by the Stockdale Paradox: “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties,” but at the same time, “Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

When you inspire confidence in your team that they will make it through the crisis—despite the fact that you have shared with your team the full difficulty of the situation—your team will be ready to join you –and follow you—in dealing with the crisis.


Key Takeaway


Real leadership is forged in crisis. This is the time that you will find out what kind of a leader you are. And this is the time that your team will need you to be the leader you are capable of becoming.

Have compassion on your team at this time. Understand their need for the brutal facts. Tell them all that you know as often as you know new information. And reassure your team that together you will get through the situation because you are willing to deal with the crisis, however difficult it may be.


Robert McFarland is the author of the bestsellers, Dear Boss: What Your Employees Wish You Knew and Dear Employee: What Your Boss Wishes You Knew. Robert is also President of Transformational Impact LLC, a leadership development consultancy helping companies improve their employee cultures to make the companies healthier, more productive, and more profitable.


How are you responding to the current crisis? I counsel leaders about how to lead in difficult times. I would be glad to help you too. 


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