Crisis management:


Can you keep your team together and motivate them? Or are you just mutating into a boss from hell? How leadership works despite the crisis - and which mistakes you should definitely avoid now.

By Julia Wehmeier

April 30, 2020

Meetings, round tables, sports, weddings and birthdays - at the moment almost everything is done via video conferencing. Then why not layoffs, the boss of the e-scooter rental company Bird thought in the USA. And in one fell swoop dismissed over 400 employees via audio message. He didn't even bother to speak live to his people , just played a recording .

Termination by means of an impersonal message is certainly an extreme example, but in the corona crisis many managers are under enormous pressure - and make mistakes that are difficult to iron out. They stumble when they announce bad messages. They ignore the needs of their employees. They act like encroaching helicopter parents, no longer trust their people and take control of all projects and decisions.

The pandemic acts like a burning glass, under which not only the different values ​​of companies are shown, but also the character and quality of every manager.

In the crisis, executives fall into the same traps again and again. 

You should avoid these five mistakes:

Mistake 1: Increase rumors because you are subconsciously sending the wrong signals

Many superiors are unaware of how much they are being watched. Even in times of agile teams and leadership at eye level, the focus in organizations is usually from the bottom up - whether you want it or not. The phenomenon has been proven in many studies: a secretary knows more about her superior than he knows about her. A student can tell more about his professor than vice versa.

This tendency is exacerbated in times of crisis: the more uncertain the situation and the greater the perceived threat, the more closely employees will monitor their managers. If the boss does something that cannot be clearly interpreted, employees interpret this in 90 percent of all cases as a sign that they are facing bad things. And if they do not understand it, they try to get more information, they research on the Internet, ask colleagues in other departments and lose sight of their actual tasks. The perfect breeding ground for rumors.

Therefore: Be clear. Be predictable. Share what you know and what you don't. For example: "I cannot tell you what will be in May. But I am planning the next few weeks with you so that we can achieve our goal xy." Or: "I'm now reviewing the budget, no layoffs are planned in the coming months."

Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University's business school and one of the leading organizational psychologists, has carried out a study to examine how executives communicate properly in times of crisis. He counts predictability as a key factor: "If you inform your employees as precisely as possible about what will happen, when it will happen and what is in store for them personally, their team and the entire company, they can be as good as possible prepare and will suffer less, "Sutton writes in the crisis management e-book by Harvard Business Manager that has just been published.

Also pay attention to non-verbal signals that you send to your colleagues. There are several cliffs and potential interference between the transmitter and receiver. This problem is exacerbated significantly in digital communication. It is difficult to decode gestures and facial expressions on the screen, the sound is often transmitted with a delay.

Several scientific studies underpin: Difficult conversations are very difficult to hold from a distance - an additional challenge. If in doubt, be overly clear, repeat your core messages and make sure that your expression matches the message. At best, you should bring a termination personally, also in the home office.

Mistake 2: Deciding too hectically

In crises we react according to an archaic pattern, we freeze or switch to attack mode. Most managers immediately understand why motionlessness is harmful. Only a few recognize that actionism also has negative effects. It feels good to be able to do something.

The problem: In times of crisis, our time horizon and our priorities shift. We are fully focused on surviving the immediate situation. In this firefighting mode, we easily overlook how a decision will affect in the long run. The fear of layoffs or financial losses puts additional pressure on managers. Therefore: Take the time to make a decision, especially in times of crisis. Collect data and facts, study forecasts.

Do you really know enough to be able to make well-founded statements? Question your sources and whether you have already made certain internal judgments. "We filter out what we don't expect or don't want to hear," writes Andrew Likierman, a professor at London Business School. This tendency increases with age, studies show that children notice many things that adults do not even notice.

Incidentally, your intuition is not a reliable guide in these times. People tend to be guided by personal feelings. Usually this is not a problem or even helpful. However, in exceptional situations it can be fatal to conclude from individual cases to all or to draw false parallels. "Gut feeling is based on accessing relevant knowledge and experience," writes Likierman. However, the current situation is new to everyone, there is little that managers can build on now. Therefore, you would rather collect data, check scenarios and ask employees, customers and colleagues how you would decide. This will broaden your perspective and make decisions on a sound basis.

Mistake 3: Only announce negative messages

Resilience studies show that there is one factor that has an extreme impact on how people get through a crisis: it is the room for maneuver. The more we feel powerless and at the mercy, the worse off we are. If, as a leader, you announce or communicate a bad message after the next: "Keep busy until we have orders again", that's a sure way to demotivate your team.

Make sure that your employees feel able to act. As a manager, you not only have to show your attitude, you also have to provide support in crises. The best way to do this is to create a sense of achievement. Set milestones that you can work towards, Sutton advises. What do you want your team to achieve by the end of the week and the end of the month? What would be a realistic but ambitious stage win for you in the current context?

Mistake 4: Take control

Controlling results and processes twice and three times, distrusting colleagues, taking on tasks - all of these are typical stress patterns in a crisis, but they tend to worsen the situation. Many bosses subconsciously slip into a pattern of oversight. But nobody can carry their company or department through the crisis alone. "A single manager is simply unable to recognize and understand all of the changes that are taking place around them," wrote Ronald Heifetz, one of the most influential leadership experts worldwide, in an article that has influenced many practitioners and management scientists since its inception Has. Lone warriors tended to underestimate risks, overestimate their own skills, to bite into small things and lose sight of important things. "Managers have to free themselves from the feeling that they have to be everything and have to do everything," says Heifetz. "Instead, they should get used to sharing this burden with people in a variety of roles and locations."

Nobody knows how the world economy will develop, the course of the pandemic is completely open. So now is the right time to involve more people in leading a team. Divide up who has which markets in view or drives individual projects forward. Determine who reviews new revenue fields. You will hardly be able to keep an eye on all construction sites alone.

Trust that your employees do their best. After all, they have an equally great interest in the company making it through the crisis and everyone still having a job when the markets recover. For example, ask your team quite frankly: Where can we save money at short notice? Which projects can now be used to earn money? "A company that relies solely on its top management as a problem solver risks failing," says Heifetz.

Mistake 5: Ignore employee needs and feelings

It's not easy to stay focused between video calls, childcare, housework and all other distractions in the home office. In this situation, employees can quickly feel that they are left alone with their problems - they only speak to their superiors on the phone about the next tasks or project goals.

Many managers fail to ask how their employees are really doing. A fatal mistake, because motivation can only come from the inside right now. Taking a long coffee break, turning on the next washing machine, or watching the next episode of the Netflix series - these temptations are difficult to resist when you feel like you're only working on tasks. On the other hand, if you feel that you are responsible for the success of a project, used and seen, you also hang around in your home office.

"Employees have to feel the empathy of their boss for their respective situation," says Wolfgang Jenewein, professor at the University of St. Gallen and leadership expert. Morning meetings should not start with the question: what needs to be done? Rather with: How are you?



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