Leading Teams Through Times of Crisis

Stress can be a powerful motivator . . . or a negative inhibitor. In a new report, Phil Harkins of Prossimo Global Partners offers suggestions for how company leaders can help their teams leverage the challenges of a crisis to emerge more successful and stronger than before. It all starts with a reality check.

October 6, 2020 – Leading teams through times of crisis can be a catalyst to incredible results. Like athletes in the last few seconds of a nail-biting game, stress can be a positive force that leads to remarkable breakthroughs. “But often, teams freeze in a crisis and miss this opportunity,” Phil Harkins, chairman and co-founder of Prossimo Global Partners, says in a new report.

“Decision making stalls, and team members feel inefficient, unproductive and ineffective, with chronic stress and paralysis as the end result,” he said. “I would like to share some evidence-based information and techniques that will help teams capitalize on the challenges of a crisis, so they can emerge more successful and stronger than before.”

As the entire world deals with unprecedented upheaval caused by COVID-19, Dr. Harkins says that the role of the team leader is to simplify complexity and inspire creative action. “Recently, my day started with conversations with two clients, each responsible for leading healthcare teams which are simultaneously weathering the current storm and facing an uncertain future,” he said. “The first conversation, with a physician team leader, started in much the same way as many of our pre-COVID discussions. Rebecca and I have been working for two years trying to bring her team to a higher level of effectiveness.”

“She knew that the way her team was providing surgical after-care was inefficient and expensive,” Dr. Harkins said. “She had told me many times that this was creating extreme frustration and despondency.” Her team had a general sense that even if they came up with a creative solution, “We can’t do it,” and they’d been stuck until the COVID crisis presented an opportunity. Faced with a critical need to reduce elective stays and get surgical patients out of the hospital as quickly as possible so they weren’t possibly exposed to the virus, she said: “We had an honest conversation with each other about what we’d all been feeling, as well as what we needed and wanted from each other.” She went on to explain that they decided to implement an online tool that allowed them to safely manage after-care for many patients at home. They had been wanting to do this for some time but had run up against institutional and personal obstacles to change. “For two years they had been trying to wrestle to the ground how they can better mobilize surgical after-care, and in two days, they solved it,” Dr. Harkins said.

 Phil Harkins is an internationally known expert in the areas of organization development, leadership, communication, executive advising, and CEO succession planning. Through his work, he has led hundreds of organizations toward better performance and overall value creation. Dr. Harkins has facilitated over 800 meetings and has been a principal speaker at over 400 conferences, symposia, and retreats throughout the world. His clients include large and small companies, as well as government agencies, healthcare systems, and non-profit organizations. Throughout his career, he has worked with leaders, executive teams, and boards in over 25 countries.

Later that same morning Dr. Harkins received a second call with a very different story. Another healthcare leader from a different part of the U.S. explained that he was feeling grief and worry. He’d been exposed to COVID-19 and had spent two weeks quarantined away from his family. He’d finally been cleared to return home, but rather than expressing relief, he sounded sad and frozen. He said: “I feel abandonment from my team as I’ve decided to work from home.” It felt unnatural to be away from his team, and this stress left him feeling directionless, disengaged, and not important— something many leaders may face as they’re forced to work remotely for the foreseeable future, Dr. Harkins said.

About Stress

Both stories are about teams under stress. Research tells us that in a crisis, stress can be either a positive force, or a negative inhibitor. “Positive stress is what psychologists refer to as acute stress, and it can be a powerful motivator, helping teams create clear paths to winning,” Dr. Harkins said. “This kind of success most often starts with a conversation where team members face up to the truth, even if it’s painful or seems dire. What people remember from these kinds of conversations is the unusual candor, the courage to create clarity, and the resolve to make real commitments.”

“Rebecca is sure that the amazing new energy among her team will now set the pace for how they will work together going forward,” he said. “Getting stuff done usually starts with cleaning things up. It is the recipe for creating calm in a storm. Sometimes small wins pave the way to go after big, audacious goals.”

On the other hand, negative stress, called chronic stress, is the enemy in times of crisis. “It depletes energy and causes anxiety,” Dr. Harkins said. “On my call with Sam, it was clear his stress had become chronic. Teams experiencing this kind of chronic stress can become frozen and start to feel like a group of Debbie Downers. Chronic stress spreads. The problem with unfreezing a team suffering from chronic stress is that you can’t push people out of stress. It doesn’t work and can lead to meltdowns.”

Related: How COVID-19 is Transforming Healthcare Recruitment

“What does work is what happened with Rebecca’s team,” Dr. Harkins said. “Turning a crisis into an opportunity gives a team permission to move. Rebecca used the acute stress of the COVID crisis as a catalyst to let go of past baggage and jump start her team with a new sense of conviction and direction. There is nothing like having a clear purpose with an actionable plan that is achievable.”

Achievability, Believability, and Transferability

There is a tool called ABT, which stands for Achievability, Believability and Transferability. Leadership teams in crisis must take the time to clearly define Achievable results, with a plan. In order to create positive stress within the team, the plan must be truly Believable to each team member. Transferability occurs when team members believe so deeply in the plan that their confidence projects to others, creating an energy force with unstoppable momentum. Dr. Harkins said that high impact teams don’t hear “no.” They stop using “but” and replace it with “and.” No one wants to say they are having fun in a crisis– but there can be quiet joy in working together, achieving results, and feeling like you are making a difference.

Refocusing Leadership and Communication During the Ongoing Coronavirus Crisis

With no relief in sight from the pandemic, organizations must pay attention to galvanizing their workforces, keep preparing for and reacting to the spread of COVID-19, and boost efforts to engage with and protect team members and families, says a new report from executive search firm Caldwell. The study includes a checklist to help meet the challenges ahead. Let’s take a closer look.

“This will inspire and motivate teams to support each other and keep going—even if they are physically apart from one another and working from home,” he said. “It looks beyond social distance and replaces it with becoming even more interconnected and interdependent.”

What is a Team of Teams?

Leading teams in crisis requires bold tactics that increase the chance of being a more efficient, effective, productive and innovative team of teams. “This requires careful planning and enormous focus on remaining agile in both designing strategy and implementing with operational excellence,” Dr. Harkins said.

He offers key action steps for creating your own team of teams’ strategy:

  1. If you are the leader, do a self-examination of your own stress. Assess both your positive stress drivers and opportunities, as well as things that create negative stress. Remember you cannot unleash the power of purpose if you are feeling chronic stress symptoms.
  2. Assess all team members as in action step one.
  3. Set daily and weekly priorities that will then be assigned to a team leader.
  4. In order to get the right people involved with maximum return, assign each team member to one of these four boxes. From this you will be able to get people to maximize their gifts and expertise, which automatically will produce positive stress and ensure balanced teams. People feel more positive stress when they are working on problems and projects that fit their strengths.
  5. In attacking problems, projects and opportunities, use the ABT Tool to ensure that every team has an achievable purpose that can be translated into a believable plan and then transferred and communicated with others so there is shared consciousness.
  6. Consistently assess, measure, and evaluate progress and stress levels. When you see team members starting to freeze, get them involved with an achievable goal that will refocus and produce positive stress.

“Leading in hard times is both an art and a science,” said Dr. Harkins. “The art is keeping everyone on the team inspired and motivated. Stay religiously focused on frequent communication. The science is following the disciplined action steps above.”

“Ensure that everyone on the team is doing his or her share to create positive stress so they can stay at the top of their game,” Dr. Harkins said. “Keep in the back of your mind that teams can thrive during times of crisis and the people on these teams will share stories on how they did it for generations to come.”

Related: The COVID-19 Impact on Executive Search

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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