March 30, 2020

Over the past few days, the leadership development team at the Advisory Board has spoken with many leaders to hear how they're feeling during this turbulent time.

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Among the many emotions expressed, two themes have caught my attention: 

  1. Uncertainty: Some leaders are feeling frustrated and weary at the inability to provide clear, fast answers to their teams. This is especially true as they "hurry up and wait" for guidance from federal and state public health authorities.

  2. Conflicting emotion: Leaders are immensely proud of their teams, particularly front-line providers who are jumping into action. But some simultaneously feel guilty or inadequate, wondering how their own contributions "stack-up" against front-line heroism.

These themes are raw—and understandable. You may experience similar emotions in the weeks ahead.  The danger is not in feeling things like frustration, weariness, guilt, and inadequacy—it's in them unconsciously driving our behavior. That's why psychologists advise we label our emotions.

Until we label it, we are the emotion. When we label it—a technique psychologists call "affect labeling"—we force the functions in our brains responsible for logic and reasoning to re-engage. Labeling your emotion—the more specific, the better—will help you objectively respond to a crisis rather than subconsciously react to it.

As you navigate how to respond, remember to temper extremes.

How to identify and temper extremes

To do this, first recognize what the extremes look like. Analyses of failed leaders in crisis illustrate three dangers: 

  • Running away from the crisis (fleeing). This shows-up as retreating to one's office, secluding from staff, or unduly deferring decision-making authority. Leaders who fall prey to this extreme are often described as "erratic."

  • Doing nothing (freezing). This shows-up as dithering, refusing to make decisions because information is not yet perfect, or pretending it's "business as-usual." Leaders who fall prey to this extreme are often described as "paralyzed."

  • Recklessly rushing to action (fighting). This shows-up as overly reactive tendencies—i.e., "act first, think later." Leaders who fall prey to this extreme are often described as "reckless."

Give some thought as to what each of these might look like in the circumstance you're facing.  Then, temper these extremes. Ask yourself:

  • Why am I here? This helps you not be erratic. Answering this question helps you establish the role you have to play and legitimize that role. For example: Your leadership role might not be to make the decision or have the answer. It might be to provide information, to lend emotional support, or to be a calming influence and sounding board for decision-makers—roles that are legitimate and important, especially in turbulent times.

  • What am I doing? This helps you not be paralyzed. Answering this question requires you to deliberately (rather than instinctively) consider the option of doing nothing and then to commit to a course of action.

  • Why am I doing it? This helps you not be reckless. Answering this question allows you to ensure your course of action is purposeful, well-scoped to the issue, and attuned to the needs of your team and those they serve.

Answering these questions also reveals a critical leadership lesson: your leadership matters. Amid turbulence, staff turn to their leader, relying on that person to carry the proverbial torch. Your response—as much its tone as its content—greatly influences your team. Your team, your organization, and your community need you. We're rooting for you.

Tomorrow: Make your COVID-19 communications to staff more effective

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