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The New Psychology of Effective Leadership

Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.

COVID-19 is forcing world leaders to practice crisis management in its purest and effective forms.

Initially, crisis responses tend to be constructive and characterized by decisiveness, effectiveness, and maturity. People switch into emergency mode and become laser-focused on the immediate situation. Yet as the initial acute phase of the crisis wanes, leaders have to tackle a different set of problems. The practical side of crisis management gives way to psychological warfare.

It triggers the unpredictability, frustration, and insecurity in us and can cause irrational and inappropriate reactions as diverse in nature as in-fighting, panic, and apathy. People become tired, passive, and disillusioned. With the rush of adrenaline waning, there will be more pressure on both financial and mental resources.

The regression phase of a crisis

Psychologists refer to this phase as “regression”. If you are unsure how deep you are into it, if at all, you might look for evidence in meetings: energy will drop, decisions will take longer or not be made at all, and confusion and conflict may arise about the small stuff.

Blabbering is a sign as much as silence or unavailability. You can also look to yourself for indicators. As a leader, has your sense of conviction faded? Are you tired, mentally or physically? Do you have urges to withdraw, even temper flares? Beware of a lack of a desire to delegate and a sudden “I will fix this myself” attitude.

To succeed and inspire as a leader you must anticipate and skilfully manage these dimensions to a crisis by using certain psychological tools. If you are absolutely 100% tied-up in the present, delegate the task of planning ahead to someone you can trust then you will be able to direct people in the right way.

How to lead in a crisis

Here are three pieces of advice to help direct your energy:

1. Remain at a distance physically, but move closer emotionally

Currently, teams are interacting almost exclusively through video conferencing and phone calls. However, isolation from the outside world and from social contact is quite stressful. Scheduling several daily updates will ensure everyone stays in touch and knows their daily tasks.

Reach out and connect so everyone feels part of the group even though they are in different locations. Connect emotionally on every call by listening with the third ear; a concept from therapy that describes the art of listening to the melody behind others’ words.

Listen to how people are saying things, not just what they are saying. For instance, who in your team is using humor in a mature way and keeping morale up? Conversely, who needs more support?

Listen, too, to what people are not saying and ask probing questions. This is important since people might be afraid to bring you more bad news. Crises tend to bring out immature and primitive responses such as denial, repression, and splitting. As a leader, you must be aware of these defense mechanisms and try to bring out the nuances and perspective to discussions where people deny the seriousness of the situation or defend themselves by blaming or even finger-pointing.

2. Balance presence with absence

As a leader, you may feel that you have to take the helm at all times and be totally omnipresent. Of course, you never can, but right now even less so.

To compensate, show your feelings through your gaze and with your words, conveying that you care about your employees and are concerned about the situation. In these difficult times, you will almost certainly make decisions that in hindsight, you would like to undo. So, take that as a given and relax about it.

You might say things that are abrupt or inappropriate. If it happens, recognize your errors and apologize quickly to emphasize that you meant only well.

Please note that you need to be just as skilled about being absent. As always, but even more so than before, you need to be fit for the fight; to have the energy to make decisions, and to be able to communicate with employees without snapping at them, adding to the existing emotional turmoil.

Don’t skimp on sleep, exercise, or time-outs. Build your reserves. Be sure to appoint one or two people who can take over for you when you are not present. Agree that you all should be able to ask for a time-out (even if you don’t feel it is necessary).


3. Don’t get absorbed by the music – keep looking out to sea

It is vital to note that crises push leaders to the front line. This all-hands-on-deck approach sets a valuable example to the organization; many leaders even admit to feeling invigorated and rejuvenated by the urgency of a crisis. But soon, you will have to reclaim your role as the captain and chart the course through the crisis.

Indeed, any military officer knows the importance of maintaining the capacity for reflection, even if just for a brief moment, in the middle of battle.

Prepare for the future

Don’t be scared to go beyond navigating the immediate, and start a conversation about what could be coming around the next corner. By discussing future directions with your team, you will give everyone a sense of control, which is central to performance when pressure builds.

The road to resilience is quite long and hard, but keeping your greater purpose in mind, staying ahead of the game and connecting deeply with your team are the steps that will ultimately ensure quality performance under pressure.

“The secret of crisis management is not good vs. bad, it’s preventing the bad from getting worse.” – Andy Gilman

Guest author: Trishna Patnaik, a BSc (in Life Sciences) and MBA (in Marketing) by qualification but an artist by choice. A self-taught artist based in Mumbai, Trishna has been practising art for over 14 years. After she had a professional stint in various reputed corporates, she realised that she wanted to do something more meaningful. She found her true calling in her passion that is painting. Trishna is now a full-time professional painter pursuing her passion to create and explore to the fullest. She says, “It’s a road less travelled but a journey that I look forward to every day.” Trishna also conducts painting workshops across Mumbai and other metropolitan cities of India. Trishna is an art therapist and healer. She works with clients on a one-on-one basis in Mumbai. Trishna fancies the art of creative writing and is dappling her hands in that too, to soak in the experience and have an engagement with readers, wanderers and thinkers. 

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