Leading Through Scary Times

[Authored by: Kim Hoogeveen, PhD]

Humans react well to unexpected good events.  We don’t, however, react well to unexpected bad events.  When such bad events occur, fear is the emotion that results.  At low to moderate levels, fear can stimulate action; at higher levels it can be paralyzing or create a mental fog that can lead to poor decisions.

If you are a leader within your organization, you carry a responsibility to deal well with scary times, for your conduct impacts not only those in your personal life, but also employees who operate within your span of control.

As we write this, the coronavirus is creating great concern – and in some cases fear.  What follows are several MindSet thoughts for leaders in regard to yourself, your family, your company, and your community.

Leading Yourself through Scary Times

1)  Watch your stress – A contagious virus is certainly something to take seriously, particularly for our elderly and those with underlying health problems.  Nothing is gained, however, from adding stress and anxiety to the situation.  It is a challenge dealing with a virus, but if individuals, particularly those in leadership positions, exhibit unnecessary anxiety or stress, one problem turns into two: the virus and our level of stress.  It can be helpful to remember that few things are either as good, or as bad, as originally reported. 

If you are feeling anxious about the coronavirus, take a walk in some woods or by a peaceful lake or river…or get in your car and drive.  Don’t drive anywhere in particular, just get out of the city, play some music on the radio or listen to a good story.  Disconnect for a couple hours from the relentless pounding of hyperbolic news and concerned people rushing into busy stores.  Distance and open space gives perspective – something that is easily lost when we are caught up in the whirlwind.

2)  Take care of yourself – it is a good time to get some rest and make sure your health stays good.  Eat well, exercise, and carve out some “you time” – this is not a selfish notion.  It will help to assure that your decision making remains sound.

3)  Keep the finish line in sight – It can be helpful to literally put a date on the calendar when you suspect things will be better – and often remind yourself to keep your eyes focused on that horizon.  In the middle of crises, the world seems to shrink in around us, and all we can see is the scary mess of the current situation.  At those times it is helpful to raise your chin up just a bit, look out further, and remind yourself that time will move on and things will improve.  You are unlikely to get out of the hole in one big jump, but it is good to keep your eyes on the goal and just take one steady step after another toward better times.  Just like every other “crisis” in the history of human existence (and by those standards this is a little one!), this too shall pass.

Leading your Family through Scary Times

1)  Don’t get too caught up in business – If you are a leader within your organization, you are rightfully concerned about your business and your employees.  Attend to that, but don’t lose sight of your family.  They may also be scared.  Your kids need to see a parental role model who projects strength and calmness. Your significant other needs a full partner.  You need not have all the answers – you just need to be there – not just there in body, but fully present with your heart, mind and ears.  Many times kids don’t ask what is really on their mind, but if you listen well and focus on what they might be feeling, you can usually have a helpful conversation.  Be proactive and anticipate what might be on their minds.

2)  Be Together – Scary things can sometimes make us reassess what is really important in our lives.  We can often get great strength from our family and friends – and we should openly turn to them at times of stress.  For those who have a strong religious faith, and even for many who may not, you might enjoy listening to a thoughtful and uplifting message from MindSet friend Mark Ashton, the Lead Minister of Christ Community Church in Omaha, as he shares some scriptural wisdom for dealing with the challenge of the coronavirus.

Leading your Company through Scary Times

1)  Opportunity #1 – I was talking with a good CEO recently who noted that as his company has been reacting to the rapidly changing operational landscape for their business, they have come up with a couple ideas that should have been implemented earlier.  Adversity sometimes gives us the kick in the rear needed to make changes we should have made long ago.

2)  Opportunity #2 – If you are in a leadership position, make sure to take note of those members of your staff who show up ready to help when you now need it most.  It is a chance to identify your true Stars – the people you will want to invest in going forward.

3)  Opportunity #3 – Do your best to treat your staff well through this hard period.  The company is under stress, but so are your employees and their families – they are scared too.  You are on stage right now.  Your employees are watching how you respond.  Thoughtful acts of kindness and understanding will be magnified and remembered – so act accordingly.

4)  Opportunity #4 – This is a hard one, but just accept there is going to be a financial hit.  That is the way the world works: things go up; things go down.  But the long-term trend is ALWAYS up if we are tough enough to persevere.

When customers are being hit with adversity and are fearful, for heaven sakes stop selling!  That is the last thing your customers want or need – and they will recall and resent your tone deafness.  Instead, be as generous as you can with customers in stress.  When you respond to their needs with understanding and kindness, you are taking the opportunity to improve your standing with a customer from a good business relationship toward more of a full partnership.  The result is you will have a more loyal, raving fan who will offer great long-term value to your business.

5)  Stay connected with your employeesMore is better when it comes to communication.  In the present situation, many are going to be working remotely for the first time.  Don’t worry if your communication is repetitive – repetition can be reassuring.  It is also okay to share concerns – your employees are not children and they can deal with reality.  If you fail to communicate, we can almost guarantee their imagination will fill in the gaps with fears that are worse than reality.

The content of your communication is obviously important, but just the connection in and of itself is reassuring to employees and gives your company a better sense of togetherness  When the coach addresses the team regularly, it helps to maintain a sense of cohesion even if the individual team members are listening from different locations.

Leading your Community through Scary Times

1)  Check in with others – Make sure your neighbors, friends, and extended family are okay.  Offer to go shopping for someone who is home-bound in your community, show them how to use technology to get some fun entertainment into their home, or just make that thoughtful phone call to that aunt who lives alone.  It sounds simple because it is, but it is surprising how much better we feel about things in general when we help someone else.  It also gives us the tangible evidence that we are far from helpless, and we are important to other people.

2)  Reach out – We may be forced to work apart for a time, but isolation is self-inflicted.  If you are working from home, take an hour every day to reach out to a couple friends for either a telephone call (which is best) or a chat over text.  When things are a bit scary, it is an important time to stay connected to others, and you will likely find they greatly appreciate you doing so.  This will invigorate both your spirit and theirs.

3)  Be appreciative – If there are leaders in your community who are having to make hard decisions and work long hours, find a way to encourage and thank them for their efforts.  It is easy to forget that those in charge (even politicians) are still just people like you and me.  They have fears and doubts, and they would benefit from hearing messages of appreciation and encouragement.

4)  Emotional contagion – There is a psychological phenomenon called emotional contagion that can infect a group, a business, a town, a state, and even a nation.  It refers to a human tendency to mirror or take on the emotion of others with whom we interact.  It is particularly evident when the emotion being spread is fear – and as mentioned above, fear is the emotion that negatively impacts decision making, which is one of the most important things a leader must do.  Humans are naturally drawn to drama, and the pessimists among us seem oddly to enjoy being on stage – those two factors make for a bad combination.

You can help to stop the spread of emotional contagion (or catastrophizing in MindSet’s Cognitive Blunders terminology) by:

  1. being mindful of the phenomenon so you can resist it,
  2. not constantly reading the latest “news” on the concerning situation at hand from such questionable sources as your inbox, Facebook, and Twitter,
  3. staying informed, but only at reasonable intervals and exclusively from reliable sources,
  4. stop making every conversation in your day about the frightening topic,
  5. actively reminding yourself and others of the blessings all around, and
  6. graciously accepting what you can and cannot control.

Closing Thoughts

It is helpful to remember that we are not in this current scary situation because of an economic problem.  We are here due to a health problem.  Now it is obvious that the health problem is dramatically impacting our economy, but we are incredibly fortunate that this challenge struck at a time of unprecedented economic strength.  Imagine how bad this would be had we been in the midst of a deep recession when all this started!  MindSet suspects the economy will come roaring back once this starts to clear – at least that has been the pattern over a couple centuries of our history.

At some point, there will have to be a rational assessment of risk mitigation and damage.  Now we are reacting with an abundance of caution because we do not yet have a clear understanding of the actual danger of the coronavirus, and most are prudent actions.  But there will soon be clear evidence of the unintended consequences of our actions, e.g., a terrible toll on our economy, small and large businesses, and families.  A good life cannot be strictly governed by risk mitigation.

We come from great stock – and in scary times we can take solace in our nation’s incredible record of accomplishment.  We will successfully come through this as well, and in the process we will even be able to thrive if we focus on taking care of ourselves, our family, our business, and our community.