Using Key Principles in a Crisis

April 2, 2020

Mike Hoban


While leadership and interpersonal skills are always important, using Key Principles in a crisis are essential.

Leader having using key principles in a crisis to talk with her team member on video via computer

Crisis can bring out the best or the worst in people. Under pressure, many of us revert back to doing what we know best. That's why it's so critical that leaders build foundational skills that are so strong that they become autopilot. At DDI, we can this using Key Principles in a crisis.

We make tough choices during crises. And we have to make them fast.

But leadership during a crisis is more than just leading the charge up the hill. While we must try to take that hill, it’s also the time to acknowledge and meet peoples’ needs as colleagues, team members, and as friends and families. This set of leadership and interpersonal skills has never been more important.

What are Key Principles?

People need to feel understood, valued, involved, and supported. At DDI, Key Principles are a set of practices and behaviors that address those needs. Key Principles have always been important, but now they are essential.

Using Key Principles in a crisis helps create a personal connection, encourage two-way communication, and strengthen relationships and build trust.

The five Key Principles serve leaders as they mobilize people and resources during the current pandemic. They include:

  • Maintaining or enhancing self-esteem.
  • Listening and responding with empathy.
  • Asking for help and encouraging involvement.
  • Sharing thoughts, feelings, and rationale to build trust.
  • Providing support without removing responsibility to build a sense of ownership.

Why are Key Principles so important in a crisis? They will guide our every interaction. And in a crisis, people remember more than ever what their leaders say and do. So it's critical to get it right - even in the toughest moments.

Maintain or enhance self-esteem

People who feel valued are more willing to share responsibility, confront challenges, and adapt to change.

Maintaining or enhancing self-esteem is about acknowledging good thinking and ideas, recognizing accomplishments, expressing and showing confidence, and being specific and sincere.

Simply thank a team member for figuring out a creative workaround, despite these constraints.

It might even be as simple as showing gratitude by saying, “I really appreciate you not only showing up on time this week, especially with the kids at home. Your can-do mindset helps us all make a difference during these tough times!”

These little messages go a long way.

Listen and respond with empathy

When you listen and understand, it supports open, two-way communication. It establishes mutual respect and trust.

Listening and responding with empathy includes responding to facts and feelings, defusing negative emotions, and acknowledging positive emotions. Leaders use empathy for both positive and negative situations.

During the pandemic, you can listen and respond with empathy in a variety of ways. For example, you could say, “I know these mandated adjustments to your schedule are making it difficult for you to do your work and leaves you frustrated sometimes.”

Reinforce a positive situation by saying, “You seem like you’ve adjusted well to this sudden work-at-home situation. It also looks like you’re enjoying helping your colleagues learn the new virtual team technology!”

Ask for help and encourage involvement

Most people appreciate providing input on decisions impacting them and their work. Often, better ideas emerge by involving others. People commit more to things they’ve helped build.

It happens by asking for ideas, opinions, or points-of-view, and encouraging others to contribute. Here, leaders should not be the first one to offer ideas. Instead, leaders should express their ideas after others expressed theirs.

For example, during a crisis, leaders could ask, “What are your thoughts on how we can communicate better since we are temporarily working from home?”

A leader could start a conversation by saying, “I have a couple thoughts about how we might address the challenge of wearing masks while we work, but I’d like to hear your ideas first.”

Share thoughts, feelings, and rationale to build trust

Trust is important and can be built by appropriately sharing your thoughts, feelings, and rationale. It’s as simple as treating people like adults.

We express ourselves with thoughts, feelings, and rationale as part of a conversation. These must be appropriate for the situation.

Leaders could share their thoughts during a crisis through a variety of statements, such as, “I think this new process change we’ve implemented to physically distance ourselves from each other will resolve the issue we discussed yesterday because...”

Feelings could be shared by saying, “I agree with your concerns about whether we’ll be able to deliver the project now that we cannot fly during the crisis. I’m concerned, too.”

It’s also important to express a decision’s rationale. This can be done by saying, “We need to stagger our break times to avoid being in groups at least for the next two weeks. The medical authorities say that will help keep us safe.”

Provide support without removing responsibility to build ownership

Building ownership helps maintain confidence and responsibility. It occurs when a leader avoids taking over on a task or assignment, even if in a helpful spirit. Providing support ensures a leader is focusing on leading and getting results through others and not exclusively doing the work itself.

This can be done by helping others think and perform, or offering support to others so they can be successful and learn from challenging situations.

We face new challenges during a crisis, making ownership essential. Leaders could build ownership during a crisis by telling an employee, “I know you haven’t hosted a virtual training session before and you want it to go well. Why don’t we do a brief rehearsal prior to the session? I can share any feedback and tips.”

Leaders could also help by saying, “With Mary being shifted to another role due to self-quarantining, you’ll need to compile budget variance reports. I know you haven’t done that yourself before, but I’m familiar with some of the reporting components. How can I help you get comfortable and confident so you can get the reports in on time?”

Key Principles in a crisis are highly versatile

Key Principles can be used in many different situations. Multiple Key Principles may be needed in some interactions—you’re not limited to one per situation. Use them often.

They are powerful and easy to use and, for most leaders, it’s just a matter of being purposeful, especially when there is great uncertainty and chaos in our work lives.

Key Principles in a crisis are highly versatile, especially when many of our daily routines have suddenly migrated from face-to-face to virtual interactions. They work in any communication medium and are channel agnostic.

Some leaders who have strong action orientations might not have soft skills and Key Principles at the top of their mind. But leaders’ decisions and actions need to be carried out or executed by others. Most people agree that gaining commitment is far better than simply gaining compliance. Key Principles help leaders gain commitment, which ultimately leads to better execution, agility and adaptability.

Key Principles in a crisis will serve leaders well, whether we are facing a pandemic, a tragedy, a financial crisis, or any other tough situation. They also work in our day-to-day lives, with friends and family, so start using them today!

Learn about DDI's leadership coaching options. 

Mike Hoban is a Senior Consultant for DDI who works with executives in many different industries. He lives right off Lake Michigan and takes way too many pictures of lake sunsets.

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