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April 9, 2020

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Psychology skills can help you weather the crisis

COVID-19 is forcing world leaders to practice crisis management in its purest form.

Initially, crisis responses tend to be constructive and characterized by decisiveness, effectiveness and maturity.

People tend to switch into emergency mode and become laser-focused on the immediate situation.

Yet as the initial acute phase of the crisis wanes, leaders will have to tackle a different set of problems. The practical side of crisis management will give way to psychological warfare.

Its triggers — unpredictability, frustration and insecurity — 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.

Psychologists call this phase “regression.” If you’re unsure how deep you are into it, 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’ll fix this myself” attitude.

Move closer emotionally

To succeed and inspire as a leader, you must anticipate and skillfully manage these dimensions to a crisis by using psychological tools. If you are absolutely 100 percent tied-up in the present, delegate the task of planning ahead to someone you trust.

The following are some suggestions to help direct your, or their, energies.

• 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 stressful.

• 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, 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 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 nuances and perspective to discussions where people deny the seriousness of the situation or defend themselves by blaming or finger pointing.

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

The author is a clinical psychologist and executive coach who has worked with teams to maintain performance in crisis situations. She has written articles on burnout for Harvard Business Review and her book ”Battle Mind” looks into the optimum mental process for performing in chaos and under pressure. Copyright: IMD.


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