First Aid for Leadership in Times of Disruption

Institute for Quality Leadership

March 13, 2020

As the impact of the coronavirus disease sweeps the world, life and work as we know it has been disrupted dramatically. Organizations and leaders across the globe are scrambling to adjust to this new reality. Beyond the fear and anxiety caused by the spread of coronavirus, the disruption to life and work affects people in various ways. As human beings, our personal reactions spill over into the workplace. While there must obviously be a strong business response to this continuously unfolding and escalating event, it also demands an effective leadership response. 

There are three major leadership challenges organizations need to overcome:

Business disruption – including keeping the business running effectively, managing risk (financial and workforce), identifying opportunities and finding innovative solutions in the new reality. 

Operational disruption – including adapting to new ways of working, updating structure and processes, and leveraging tools to enable scaling of remote work and virtual teams, and creating new ways of collaborating.   

People disruption – including enhancing resilience and agility, maintaining engagement and well-being, transmitting clear and transparent communication, and inspiring creative and forward thinking.

Before addressing these challenges in more depth, our experience and in-depth research tell us that the first response for leaders is to be aware of, and manage the impact of disruption on our employees’ Personal and Organizational Continuums.

The concept of a continuum refers to the basic need of humans to maintain consistency in life, which allows them to predict their immediate future and act accordingly. Disruption, therefore, undermines these continuums, creating fragility and turbulence in people’s psychological state, mindset or behavior. Leaders can play a powerful role in mitigating the impact of disruption and bolstering people’s well-being.

We at the Institute for Quality Leadership draw on six key Personal and Organizational Continuums which leaders need to consider during times of change and disruption:

Existential – basic human needs and identity.

Cognitive – the need to understand and have clarity.

Functional – the need for regular routine and task accomplishment.

Emotional – the need for stability and to feel safe.

Social – the need for belonging and connection with others.

Leadership – the need for leadership presence, accessibility and someone to rely on.

Everyone experiences all the continuums, and during times of significant change, each continuum will be disrupted to varying extents for different people.

For some people, the disruption will shake their Cognitive Continuum most because, in order for them to function effectively, they must know what is going on and try to gather as much information as possible. For example, they constantly check the news or talk to people instead of doing their work. For others, their Emotional Continuum will be hit hardest because their anxiety and fear overwhelm their ability to function effectively.

For that reason, during times of disruption, leaders need to be aware of each continuum and tune in to themselves as well as to each individual employee’s response and needs. It is important to remember that leaders are also human beings who seek consistency, so it is vital they reflect on their continuums and fortify their own resilience first. Then, though they may not be psychologists, leaders can play a constructive role in helping to restore these continuums for their employees – to improve their well-being and help them function effectively.

It’s in times of disruption that real leadership is required, more than ever. While the threat to financial results and the pressure to deliver may be very real, it is essential that leaders approach and support their employees in a holistic way.

We know that everyone is having a tough time with this disruption. Which is why we at the Institute for Quality Leadership will be distributing more tools and materials which expand on the challenges presented here, to equip leaders with the right mindset and skillset to navigate this disruption. Stay tuned and be in touch.