The Inevitable Second Wave of a Business Crisis
How to prepare for the emotional demands of leading a company through a disaster
Companies around the world are facing financial difficulties as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Good leaders are facing these challenges head-on and making tough decisions about their resources to protect their businesses from financial ruin.
However, there’s an even more prominent crisis happening simultaneously: an emotional crisis. Even startups with years of runway ahead are feeling its impact. Emotional crises are perfectly understandable, and quite predictable following any business crisis — particularly one as major as a global pandemic.
It’s worth being aware of these issues because even if you aren’t affected, someone close to you might be going through them. Here are some of the most common post-crisis situations and what you can do — as a leader and a human — to proactively manage them.
1. Emotionally overwhelmed? Re-optimize your routine.
It’s easy to understand an emotional reaction that’s directly related to the crisis at hand. For instance, it’s natural that changes in strategy, staff cuts, and an increase in workload are going to cause stress. However, many people fail to consider the indirect pressures a crisis can bring.
Indirect pressures are caused by the changes in our environment, relationships, and routine that follow a crisis. We can lose rituals and habits that we didn’t even realize contributed to our sense of well-being — a particular route you used to walk, for example, or a smile from a friendly co-worker in the office. Even just the smell of your favorite coffee shop.
Unlike the crisis itself, these pressures accumulate in the background until they manifest themselves as overwhelming emotions, or even as a breakdown. One way to mitigate this is by re-optimizing your new daily routine. If I asked you about your go-to behaviors for managing stress during your day, I’m sure you’d have no problem listing them: blocking out thinking time in your calendar, going for a walk outside the office, or having a non-work chat with a colleague, for example. Or they might be things that have nothing to do with work, such as meditating, journaling, exercising, or just getting enough sleep.
But we often forget to build these behaviors into our post-crisis routines, so take control of your day and add in what’s missing. Remember that to protect your well-being, it’s okay to say “no” without feeling guilty.
2. Stuck firefighting? Re-prioritize every week.
Crises come with new priorities. But they also come with a lot of burning issues. In the weeks following a crisis, you can find yourself reacting to urgent situations, meeting requests, and responding to a never-ending stream of emails. The time spent on your own agenda gets smaller and smaller.
When you’re in firefighting mode for a long period, you can end up forgetting your priorities altogether. You might even convince yourself that you’re a professional firefighter (unless, of course, you are).
In the aftermath of a crisis, when reactivity is high, regular prioritization is essential. Some people like to spend time prioritizing on Monday mornings, and others on Friday afternoons. I do a lightweight version at the beginning of each day, week, and month.
When prioritizing, it’s helpful to remember that the point of all work is ultimately to help other people — which, in most cases, are customers or team members. Framing your objectives in these terms will help you reconnect with this sense of purpose.
Of course, there’s no point in having priorities if you don’t set aside time to work on them. Ensure you have enough appropriate time in your schedule and protect it.
3. Feeling disconnected? Be brave and reach out.
There are many reasons for feeling isolated following a crisis. Some are obvious — for example, the current coronavirus crisis has led to enforced physical isolation — but even without these measures, a sense of isolation is common after a company- or life-changing event.
We often intentionally isolate ourselves because we need a greater level of support. The twisted logic goes like this: “I need some attention, but I don’t trust myself not to dump my problems on someone else, so I’d better keep quiet.”
Likewise, you can’t assume that just because a teammate hasn’t messaged you with a problem that all is well on their end. During good times, leaders are usually last to find out about problems, but after a crisis, things can be even worse — especially when there is uncertainty about keeping jobs.
Just as you become more irritable when you’re hungry, you can become more defensive when you’re fearful.
That’s why proactive and obligatory feedback loops are even more critical, to make it as easy as possible for feedback to flow up and down. And managers, I don’t mean simply asking, “How are you?” at the beginning of a call. I mean dedicating time to connecting and sharing.
If you’re an employee lacking necessary information or feedback to do your job properly, reach out and tell your manager what you need from them. And then send a text message to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. We should all try regularly doing this, anyway.
The coronavirus has created another challenge for connection: digital communications. Feedback in text messages is notoriously easy to misinterpret, and Zoom calls can be far more exhausting than face-to-face conversations in real life. I try to use audio wherever possible, as I find it easier to concentrate and less draining.
4. Noticing conflict? Look for generous interpretations.
Conflict is common during a crisis because snap decisions are often required. However, new conflicts may continue to break out between teams and individuals even after the initial crisis has ended.
Crises can make us fear for our livelihood, our relationships, and, in the case of a global pandemic, our health. And this fear can seep into other areas of life. Just as you become more irritable when you’re hungry, you can become more defensive when you’re fearful.
“Emotional generosity” is when you actively seek kinder reasons for why someone is acting in an unconstructive way. Kevin Kelly provides a timely technique for doing this in his essay “68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice.” He writes: “When someone is nasty, rude, hateful, or mean with you, pretend they have a disease. That makes it easier to have empathy toward them which can soften the conflict.”
If you find yourself in a conflict at work or in your personal life, it’s worth taking the time to process your emotions on your own time. You can do this through breathing, counseling, or journaling. I journal every morning for 15 minutes, starting with the words “I’m feeling . . .” It makes a significant difference to my self-awareness, resilience, and clarity of thought.
One final piece of advice
I recently came across some insightful neuroscientific findings that show how putting negative feelings into words reduces the intensity of the emotion. Meanwhile, labeling positive emotions can reinforce them.
In other words, it does help to get your feelings off your chest — whether that’s in a journal, or by talking with a friend or colleague. And if you want to help someone, whether as a co-founder, investor, teammate, or friend, a thoughtful listener might be all they really need.