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Building a Stronger Future Starts Today: Leadership During Times of Crisis

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by John Austin in Leadership, Safety, Stress

During the best of times and during the worst of times, people want certainty at work.

They want to know what to expect from their work, from the team, and most importantly, from their leaders. Two ways leaders can create certainty is through planning and communication.  This includes planning of their own time (so they don’t appear too busy) as well as planning during a pandemic like we’re in the midst of now.

I recently spent an hour with my friends, colleagues and food safety experts, Rob Kooijmans and Kitty Appels in our webinar entitled, “Building a Stronger Future Starts Today: Leadership During Times of Crisis”. You can watch the entire webinar below for free. This is a summary of some of the key topics we covered plus some additional ideas.

We discussed how organizations need to be resourceful during the current times of COVID and that the impacts are so variable across industries that there are no single solutions.

For instance, restaurants are completely closed in many cities and countries and are starting to innovate as a result with new carryout series and coupons.  In March 2020 alone, US restaurants lost over $25bn and experts predict that 1 in 5 will permanently close as a result of a 71% drop in business. On the other hand, some industries can’t meet the dramatically increased demand for their products.

Inside of organizations, there are lots of different dynamics and challenges such as:

      • How do you get the work done while social distancing?
      • How do you create an environment in which people socially distance, wear masks, wash hands, and so on? I have a particular expertise in this area and ran a free webinar with Dr. Nicole Gravina on some of these topics.
      • What about when people get sick?
      • How to maintain a clean workspace?

We’re faced with even some essential businesses having trouble meeting demand: WalMart planned to add 150,000 workers to meet the demand, whereas other big retailers are closing their doors.  Even food manufacturing plants have been in the news as COVID-19 spreads through their plants, closing 20 of them across the US during March, 2020 and creating a meat shortage across the country.

In addition, there are many levels of connectivity in the food industry. For example driving cars less in the US negatively impacts the meat industry since they rely on CO2 for production. Getting raw materials and even food across the border is challenging.

How should leaders decide what to do in this environment?

One way to make business decisions clearer during Coronavirus is to triage your business activities into things you must continue, things you can pause, and things you should stop doing right now. Determine your core business and the processes associated with that and make sure you’ve planned so that those can continue.

If you’re in manufacturing, then you need raw materials, people to schedule and manage production, workers to run production need to be available and healthy, QC needs to be involved, etc. Given that many people are working from home, it may be difficult to continue multidisciplinary activities so some might be paused. Other activities can be stopped, such as big projects. I’m seeing many organizations delay or defer activities that do not absolutely need to be conducted now. This might also include annual activities – of course you must follow regulatory activities, but some of these things can be deferred until more people are back to work.

How can a safety manger convince two or more leaders to have the same stance on safety?

Top leaders in the organization need to set the tone for how important safety is. In simple terms, it’s worth reflecting on how much of the conversation is about production, safety, or quality. I work in some industries that see injuries and waste as unavoidable byproducts of the production process.

I think it’s true that everyone in the organization in some way impacts safety. Every department, including procurement, accounting, HR, environmental, maintenance, etc. they all help to create the environment at the workface in which the work teams believe they can do the work safely or not.

It’s harder than we think to convince people at the workface that you really don’t want anyone to get hurt. I teach people how to do this using behavioral science, and that is highly effective. But, it takes time, practice, and some experimentation to building trust, credibility, and to figure out the right messaging. A big part of this involves setting the conditions for psychological safety, getting honest feedback, acting on it consistently, and building up your behavioral integrity.

Most leaders want to directly impact the people at the workface, but a little bit of logic tells us this is a poor strategy. Consider how many minutes a senior leader spends with a work crew. Compare that to how many minutes their direct supervisor spends with them. Now, which do you think has more influence over the work crew’s actions and beliefs about safety, quality, and other types of work? I often work with organization leaders to cascade communications through the ranks to the front line supervisor…the person who needs to convince their team that safety (and/or quality, cost, etc.) is truly important every day.

Finally, I suggest to leaders to figure out where you have influence and where you don’t. When given the choice, many of us choose to work on convincing the ‘tough cases’. Instead, we should find the places of least resistance and work there. This allows you to create more reliable change more quickly, and which eventually will impact the others who are slower to adopt the cultural shift.

Taking care of yourself as a leader

We know that there is a thing called “emotional contagion” – that your feelings and emotions are contagious to the others who you work with. We also know that negative emotions are even more contagious than other emotions.  Finally, we know that people look to leaders for guidance on how to act and how to feel at work, more so than coworkers or direct reports.

For these reasons, and lots of others – especially during this COVID-19 epidemic and other times of crisis – it is vital for you to manage your energy, health, and emotional well-being. In the webinar, we discuss some ways that leaders can do this…and many of them are pretty mundane and not surprising. Things like getting enough sleep (most people need a minimum of 7 hours to avoid negative impacts), getting regular exercise (even 10-20 min a few times a day helps), eating a healthy diet (shoot for 75% of your plate as vegetables), and planning in thinking time for yourself have all shown to improve performance and help you with emotional regulation.

Strength during a crisis

I’m telling a number of clients these days that they are doing a heavy workout right now and because they’re doing the right things now, they will come out on the other side of this much stronger and with a tighter team and better focus. This is true during COVID-19, but it’s also true any time. There’s nothing like a crisis to make us focus on what is really important.

I do think this is true for the leaders who are:

  • Addressing the person’s physical and psychological health and family first
  • Working on keeping things simple and behavioral,
  • Clearly and frequently communicating,
  • Being as transparent as possible,
  • Asking for input from teams,
  • Being patient with people who are trying to change their behavior and manage their fear

All of these practices will help you to get super focused about what is essential in the business and what plans are required to keep things running well during this time and as things restart.

In the webinar we covered these topics and others related to using a time of crisis as an opportunity to strengthen the organization. I hope that some of these tips are useful to you.

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