illustration of 5 keys on a key ring next to a lock, each key with a relevant icon for each one of DDI's 5 Key Principles in a crisis, for example, one of the keys has an icon of a person flexing their muscles with a heart on their chest for the maintain or enhance self-esteem key principle


Using Key Principles in a Crisis

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

Publish Date: October 26, 2022

Read Time: 6 min

Author: DDI Team

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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 using them feels like you're on autopilot. At DDI, we call 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 leading the charge up the hill. While we must try to take that hill, it’s also the time to acknowledge and meet people's 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. The 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, strengthen relationships, and build trust.

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

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

Why are Key Principles so important in a crisis? They can 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.

1. 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.

For example, thank a team member for figuring out a creative work-around, despite challenging constraints.

It might even be as simple as showing gratitude by saying, “I really appreciate that you showed up on time this week. Your can-do mindset helps us all make a difference during these tough times!”

These messages can go a long way.

2. 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 times of crisis, you can listen and respond with empathy in a variety of ways. For example, you could say, “I know these changes are making it difficult for you to do your work and can be frustrating.”

Reinforce a positive situation by saying, “You seem like you’ve adjusted well to the changes we’ve put into place. It also looks like you’re enjoying helping your colleagues learn.”

3. 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.

You can involve others by asking for ideas, opinions, or points of view, and encouraging others to contribute. Leaders should not be the first one to offer ideas. Instead, leaders should express their ideas only after others have expressed theirs.

For example, during a crisis, leaders could ask, “What are your thoughts on how we can communicate better since the situation is rapidly changing?”

A leader could start a conversation by saying, “I have a couple thoughts about how we might address some of our current challenges, but I’d like to hear your ideas first.”

4. Share thoughts, feelings, and rationale to build trust.

Trust is important and you can build it with your peers and teams 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 improve quality and safety 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 on time. I’m concerned, too.”

It’s also important to express the rationale for a decision. You can do this by saying, “We need to prioritize work for this client right now. This is one of our biggest clients and there's potential for more growth, which could help us during this downturn.”

5. Provide support without removing responsibility to build ownership.

Building ownership helps maintain confidence and responsibility. Team members have the best chance to develop ownership when leaders avoid taking over on a task or assignment, even if in a helpful spirit. By limiting their role to providing support, leaders stay focused on leading and getting results through others and not exclusively doing the work itself. Leaders can support their teams by helping them think through challenges or review performance.

We often 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 training session like this one before and you want it to go well. Why don’t we do a brief rehearsal prior to the session? I can share feedback and tips to help you prepare.”

Leaders could also help by saying, “With your colleague shifting to another role for the short term, 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?”

In Conclusion:

Key Principles in a Crisis Are Highly Versatile

You can use Key Principles in many different situations, and you may need to use multiple Key Principles in some interactions. They are powerful and easy to use. When there is uncertainty and chaos at work, being purposeful in every interaction can make all the difference.

The Key Principles are highly versatile during a crisis, especially when daily routines and workflows are disrupted. 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 only gaining compliance. Key Principles help leaders gain commitment, which ultimately leads to better execution, agility, and adaptability.

Using the Key Principles in a crisis will serve leaders well, whether the organization faces a tragedy, financial crisis, or any other tough situation. The Key Principles also work in our day-to-day lives, with friends and family, so start using them today!

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