11 Ways Leaders Can Lead Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

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May 7, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

As a leader during these challenging times, you can look at change in two ways: (1) It creates opportunities; or, (2) change is horrible, something that is frightening.

In this new normal, with upheaval, uncertainty, and change spinning around us, I urge you to think of change as an opportunity to think differently. It encourages everyone to move past their comfort zones, try new ways of doing things, and embrace creativity. Change happens every single day. Nothing stays the same. Business changes and people change. Theories and ideas change, as well. It’s your job to adapt and change with them as we come out of these stressful and chaotic times.

Accept that change can be positive and convince your people to follow your lead!

How can leaders inaugurate change initiatives? Look at it this way: Today, change is necessary (and, by the way, it has always been so) in this pandemic world. Business conditions have radically changed and yesterday’s practices may no longer work. Leaders have to be flexible, adaptable, and agile to adjust to the ever-present shifting business climates, but it’s very important to understand that leading change is more than just a process.

We often forget the most important aspects of change are people and their morale. It’s often very easy to strategically manage the process and erroneously believe that when we have the correct process in place, change will automatically work. We frequently forget that the change we are all experiencing is very emotional for the average employee. As leaders, we need to understand that emotional process and the impact it has on morale. One of the most natural human instincts is to resist change, even if it’s beneficial.

As people experience the new changes that will occur in our post-pandemic organizations, stress is a given. As much as people will be excited to be back to work, expect to see plenty of discomfort and sometimes resentment, even under the best of circumstances, when people accept changes.

If not properly led, change can negatively affect individual and organizational performance. Consequences may include a negative work environment as well as decreased performance and increased stress. Even when it’s clearly evident that change is working, it’s often difficult to keep morale at a healthy level.

This forced change we’re in provides opportunities to grow and improve. Change is an opportunity to think differently and create better systems, products, people, teams, and organizations.

What leaders can do

  1. Provide consistent messages on a regular basis. You can’t say one thing one day, and then switch your message on another day. Be consistent in messages regarding change, as people are looking to you for leadership. If you’re consistent, they’ll feel much more secure about impending changes.
  2. Celebrate small success. For those of you who have children, remember when your child took that first step? You were so excited that you celebrated the event, right? Well, it’s the same thing with change. It must be celebrated. Use baby steps to measure success and be sure to celebrate small successes. When even the smallest positive experience happens, make a big deal about it.
  3. Be patient. Throughout the years, I’ve coached many leaders who have gone through change initiatives. The one common denominator that effective leaders possess is the ability to be patient and let the change initiative run its course. As a young leader, I did not have the patience to let many change initiatives play out. Early in my career as an executive, I’d often change things up while we were already in the middle of a change initiative, which meant I totally confused people. As I gained more experience, I became more patient. I watched as well-thought-out initiatives took hold and came to fruition. The patient leader will ultimately be rewarded with the desired results.
  4. Pay attention to people’s emotions. Don’t act shocked or lash out when people initially have a negative reaction to change. When you make changes, be prepared for them to have strong reactions, and feel uncomfortable and even scared. An effective leader understands that emotions need to be dealt with on both an individual and group level. Once you address people’s needs, they will begin to feel more comfortable and accept a change initiative. You can have all the strategy in the world in place, but if you can’t handle people’s emotions, change will never work.
  5. Get input from your people. One of the best ways to encourage people to buy into your change is to seek their help and opinions. Let them be part of the initiative. Let them, in essence, touch it, taste it, smell it, and feel it. Then, let them provide as much input as they want. Once they begin to participate, they will start to take ownership of the change, which leads to acceptance. In our consulting practice, we do a lot of strategic planning, which often brings about drastic changes. We get as many people involved and then let it trickle down to every level. We let people poke holes, make changes, agree with it, disagree with it, and provide their own thoughts. Once this happens, most people buy into the change. Their participation in the process helps them feel a though they’ve had a hand in the results, and they’re invested in making it work. They will feel proud of what they now own.
  6. Don’t look back; look forward and show people the future. I once worked with a company on a change initiative, and management became stuck. The leaders kept looking back at the way things had always been done, instead of focusing on the way things would be managed in the future. This was a serious error. In the end, they couldn’t let go of old habits and entrenched ways of thinking, and their change initiative turned into a disaster. An effective leader looks forward, showing people how change benefits individuals and the organization. Leaders must focus on the future. They should paint a picture and motivate people by sketching them into the scenic landscape. We want to learn from history and respect the past, but we must put it in the proper perspective.
  7. It’s a team effort. We’re only as good as the teams we put together. Effective leaders understand that nothing happens when individuals work in a vacuum. Collective efforts, with ideas and insights and thoughts from all team members, are the ones that succeed – with the added and essential ingredients of determination and hard work.
  8. Expect bumps in the road. When you begin a change initiative, things will happen, and not all of them will be good. In fact, you and your team will encounter many hurdles along the way. As a leader, you require the courage and savvy to face these speed bumps, while maintaining a positive outlook. If you’re a doom-and-gloom leader, others will mirror your behaviors and emotions. Effective leaders stay strong, exude positivity, and remain calm, even when chaos erupts.
  9. A leader doesn’t have all the answers. Instead, effective leaders surround themselves with the smartest and brightest people they can find. Once your team is in place, members will be the drivers and leaders of many organizational change initiatives. It’s okay not to have all the answers. Your job is to have all the right questions and challenge people to their fullest capabilities. In other words, make them shine!
  10. Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Whenever change is occurring, make sure there’s open communication. Encourage people to talk about the change, and make sure you communicate with people at every organizational level. When communicating, use different formats to get your message across: newsletters, emails, videos, Zoom/Skype, one-on-one or group meetings, and town halls. The most important goal is clarity. When speaking, our tone of voice or inflection may have different meanings to people from diverse backgrounds and levels of experience. As such, it’s incumbent upon leaders to communicate in a way that’s clearly understood, without confusion, ambiguity, or misinterpretation. Poor communication is one reason so many initiatives fail.
  11. Be resourceful. Encourage resourcefulness by involving others in innovations, soliciting their ideas, and then using that input to foster teamwork. Encourage your people to brainstorm and share ideas, no matter how wacky. Such free-form thinking often leads to the best new products or services. Never mock an idea or allow employees to do so. You never want to stifle creativity and creative thinking. Teach your people that it’s okay to try a new idea and fail. This will make them even more committed, dedicated, and excited about coming up with a better plan. When you do fail, admit it openly. You’ll be a role model for your staff, sending the message that it’s okay to try and not get the results you intended. Say, “I failed. We all make mistakes. If this idea didn’t work out, so be it. It was worth pursuing.”

Sadly, many leaders who are self-centered and narcissistic deny their failures. They would prefer to say that everything they do is perfect. That sends a terrible message to the rest of the organization.

Remember, the more radical the change, the greater the resistance. It takes careful planning, not only for the changes you want, but equally important, how the changes will be presented to employees and the indoctrination they will need to accept changes.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.