How leaders play a key role in crisis management

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How leaders play a key role in crisis management
Many CHROs and HR leaders are managing a multifaceted crisis for the first time in their careers
Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

HR leaders are managing an unprecedented crisis.

We are living through unchartered territory.  From extended COVID-19 lockdowns to the proliferation of natural disasters and other crises, human resource leaders are facing increasing pressure to demonstrate strong, effective leadership during multidimensional challenges.

At the same time, employees are facing pressures of their own while operating under tremendous stress and anxiety. These parallels have made chief human resource officers (CHROs) and heads of HR functions key partners with our c-suite leaders in managing crises and building organisational resilience.

Here are some of the ways in which leaders, particularly CHROs and other HR leaders, can support our organisations through crises.

Understand and manage crises

One of the keys to managing crises is to first understand organisational risk and any measures that are in place to identify and mitigate those potential risks and disruptions. This may require HR leaders to move beyond their comfort zone, but as leaders, it’s important that we have the knowledge needed to make decisions that will help to safely steer our organisations through the storm.

We must ask ourselves the following questions:

What facts do I know? Ensure you are as informed and as up-to-date as possible. Your relationships with senior leadership and stakeholders will help create context when needed.  As you are well aware, it will be your job to provide employee-related answers, which may not be readily available without the help of additional tools or resources.

What else do I need to know? There will likely be gaps in any leader’s knowledge and understanding of various crises. You can look to your peer network—especially those responsible for security and risk and brand and reputation—to help you identify what those gaps are and how to fill them. This will help you to better understand and prepare for what’s next.

What do I think? Making smart assumptions about what is going to happen next and assigning a probability are fundamental to any crisis leadership and planning function. You must be clear in communicating those assumptions, the data underpinning them, and any variations that exist between employee type and location.

Behaviours leaders should adopt

When a crisis occurs, how leaders react is crucial. We must help maintain employee morale, mitigate the impact, and protect our people. To do so effectively, there are important behaviours HR leaders can and should adopt to help their organisation navigate through uncharted waters:

  1. Lead with compassion. More than ever before, the mental health and wellbeing of employees should be central to your business strategy and culture. Prioritise your people. Communicate clearly and often.

  2. Trust and empower your team. Delegation is a leader’s superpower. Don’t micromanage. Instead, delegate and then delegate some more. This means you must trust and empower your team to make tough decisions.

  3. Be transparent about your decision making. This creates trust among teams, fellow leaders and employees. It’s also critically important if you’re asking your organization to undergo any kind of change management—people need to know the ‘why’ before they can buy into and adopt change. And while precision is key, so is the speed with which decisions must be made.

  4. Act with agility. You should be prepared to pivot as a crisis develops. The people strategy that your business relied on prior to the crisis might not be relevant when a new situation evolves.

Lastly, HR leaders need to develop the skills required to lead under stress. If you don’t yet know how you will react in times of crisis, it’s difficult to set yourself up for success. The best way to learn to stay calm under pressure is to practice putting yourself in stressful situations.

Practise making tough, strategic decisions in as realistic an environment as possible. How do you react? What are your weaknesses? Your strengths? There are psychometric tools that you can use to stress-test yourself; some companies use them for crisis leadership training. The goal is to understand what happens to you when faced with a crisis.

As businesses operate in an ever-changing world, especially with the surge of the COVID-19 Delta variant, many CHROs and HR leaders are managing a multifaceted crisis of this scale and magnitude for the first time in their careers. But the pandemic has also provided all of us with an unparalleled opportunity to solidify ourselves as both business partners to our colleagues and guardians of our organisations. When equipped with the right skills and knowledge, HR leaders will be able to ensure all stakeholders, including employees, customers, investors and communities, are taken care of in crisis management and business continuity plans.

Whitney Benner is Chief People Officer at Dataminr at Dataminr. 

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