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Leading in the weeks and months of Coronavirus disruption

The last several days have been a whipsaw of adjustment for leaders and teams in organizations around the globe.

The coronavirus pandemic has gone from casual remarks in pre-meeting chit-chat to disruption of supply chains, travel plans, work locations, childcare, and personal security in a blink of an eye.

Leaders are reeling and just trying to catch up, let alone get ahead of what this means.

We need, however, to start to turn our attention to the weeks and possibly months ahead. While we have no idea what the next 7-60 days hold for the spread of the virus, we do know that teams and employees will go through a change curve about the disruptions in their day-to-day lives. These disruptions won’t be resolved by next weekend.

The change curve is a framework long taught in business and leadership courses and originally attributed to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. a Swiss-American psychiatrist, who developed these ideas as a result of her work observing her patients’ response to grief and bereavement.

The Kübler-Ross Model defines a series of stages of our response to a major shock or change over time: the curve shows the pattern of our emotions as we adjust:

The model, importantly, defines the stages of emotional reaction to major change but does not predict how long you will stay in any stage. You can linger in any stage for an extended period.

That’s where the role of the leader comes in. We can help ourselves and then our teams understand where we are at any given moment in this cycle. We can help people move to a more productive stage. We must adapt our leadership to each employee’s specific reality.

What’s helpful at each stage?

What can leaders do?

In the early stages of a change, people need to understand. They need information that will help them come to grips with what is happening around them. As they move through the curve, they need emotional support. As time progresses and teams and employees move through the emotional gulf to acceptance of a change, only then will they be are grateful for clear direction and ultimately encouragement.

Where are we right now?

We are all in shock and, many of us in some form of denial, about the wide-ranging impact that coronavirus containment measures are having on our lives. What we all crave desperately right now is more information. How at risk are we? How long will this last? What will happen to our jobs?

Great leaders are masterful at offering what limited information they have.  The role-model leaders who have emerged in the last few days have been transparent about what they know.  They have explained what they are doing about what they don’t know. They have shared their own stories of shock and displacement and have helped their teams recognize that they are not alone.

This is the time for information and support. 

Two challenges ahead for leaders…

Members of your team will move through this curve at different rates. Their pace will be shaped by their own mindset and personal circumstances. The longer the social distancing requirement continues, the wider a range of emotional responses you will see. Be prepared to be agile as a leader in response to the individual needs of your team.

Coronavirus may pose waves of change and disruption. While we are all hopeful that the current measures will be temporary and our daily lives with resume (with newfound appreciation of our health) in a relatively short period, there may be continued disruptions and changes of all magnitude in the days ahead. Be prepared to “go back” on this curve to go forward as we help everyone adjust to the reality of COVID-19 and a very different 2020 than we planned for just a few short weeks ago.