When I was 8 years old the world was gravely concerned about the prospect of a nuclear war, as global superpowers the USA and USSR were locked in a Cold War staredown. Then, when I was 28, approaching the year 2000, there were serious worries about the Y2K computer bug, which some experts said would make planes fall out of the sky and cause widespread chaos. Luckily, neither event took place.
Now I’m 48 and we have a very significant and troubling reality on our hands. Coronavirus COVID-19 is racing around the world, dressed in a cloak of invisibility, hitching a ride on reluctant carriers. 2 months ago we’d never heard of this virus, then for some time it was largely contained to China. Flash forward to today and the World Health Organisation has applied the “P” word – Pandemic. It’s a grim reality, and we’re only at the beginning.
At times like these the eyes of the world are on leaders to see how they respond. Earlier this week Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a clear signal about how serious this was, saying, “Whatever you thought 2020 was about, think again”. Yesterday Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel administered a bitter pill of reality to the German people when she said, “60 to 70% of the population will be infected”. American President Donald Trump has taken a different approach, as he tends to, with communication along the lines of “Gallup just gave us the highest rating ever for the way we are handling the Coronavirus situation.” Hmmm.
I’m imagining you keep a lower profile than the 3 people above. Nevertheless, if you’re a leader in any capacity people are watching you as well. How you respond will set a tone that will spread like a virus through the team you lead. This means it’s important to take a considered approach which addresses the situation but does not cause people to panic.
Here are 5 things I recommend for leaders guiding teams through the Coronavirus pandemic:
- Give people a chance to talk about the situation and their reactions to it. For most of us, not having lived through wars, this is the most immediate widespread threat to humanity we’ve seen. Everyone will be processing the information they see on the news and reacting to it one way or another, even people who are outwardly showing no signs of concern. Asking people how they are going and giving people a chance to talk about their reactions at work can only help.
- Be as clear as possible with team members about your organisation’s response to the crisis. Anticipate and answer as many questions as you can. What should people do if they become sick? What should people do if members of their families become sick? What if schools close? What is the organisation’s view on working from home? Under what circumstances, if any, would the organisation consider a shut down of operations? How will essential services be maintained if significant numbers of people become sick?
- Do what you can to ensure that Coronavirus doesn’t grind things to a halt. Disruption is inevitable, but it’s important for the economy, for workplaces and for each of us personally to stay busy and productive, while ever and wherever it is safe to do so. Even if adjustments to normal processes need to be made let’s do whatever we can to keep ourselves and our world moving.
- Try opening up some conversations that balance the gloom and doom. For example, try asking “What’s the good news in what we’ve been hearing lately?” The fact that the vast majority of people who contract Coronavirus recover, and indications that new cases in China may be declining are both reasons for optimism. It would also be a good time to ask one of my favourite questions of all, “What is the opportunity in this?” Maybe this is a great chance for teams to try out some innovative approaches of working together that may help in the future, or perhaps it’s a chance to work on projects that have been on the backburner for a long time.
- Finally, remind people of good health and hygiene practice. Messages like “wash your hands”, “avoid shaking hands” and “don’t touch your face” will start to sound very tedious but they will save lives.
Good luck to everyone over the coming months. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but if we’re sensible, we keep talking to each other and we look after each other we’re likely to be OK.
By the way, the title of this article comes with sincere apologies to esteemed author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose book “Love in the Time of Cholera” is well worth a read.