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Crisis Management: Leading in a Pandemic

· leadership,crisis management,COVID19,employee engagement,leadership tips

All of us have been greatly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. The world’s population has had to contend with everything from empty grocery store shelves to systemic and economically-debilitating unemployment. The fear and turmoil that the pandemic brought have burdened and destroyed many businesses—mostly small and medium-sized businesses. Although even large industries, such as the airline industry, were ‘bailed out’ by government funding to avoid failing. The stress and fear that workers are feeling right now are palpable. As the U.S. economy slowly begins to return to a semblance of normalcy, effective crisis leadership is critical to a successful transition back to work.

According to crisis management researchers Christine M. Pearson and Judith A. Clair, an organizational crisis can be defined as, “a low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the viability of the organization and is characterized by ambiguity of cause, effect, and means of resolution, as well as by a belief that decisions must be made swiftly.”[1] These types of crises, such as the pandemic that we are currently enduring, induce high levels of stress, which act as obstacles to productivity. Employees, like the majority of the world’s population, did not anticipate a global pandemic or its deleterious effects. The effects of stress on the population does not have work/life boundaries. The stress that your employees feel about Covid-19 will affect their sense of safety at home and work. Furthermore, employees are looking for leaders to move them away from the wreckage of this crisis and into a profitable future. That goal can only be accomplished through effective crisis leadership.

            How to be an Effective Leader During a Crisis:

The objective of effective crisis management is to create an environment with as little uncertainty as possible so that people can more easily make ‘sense’ of both their surroundings and their roles in the recovery process. Crisis management researchers tell us that effective crisis management entails improvising through creative and unique interactions with employees that address their emotional state. Successful crisis management begins at the individual level by engaging with employees and exhibiting a shared understanding of the impact of this disaster. Employees need to have a sense of what is expected of them. That means that I highly recommend reworking existing performance expectations that realistically reflect obtainable goals, given recent events. Don’t set your employees up for failure by enforcing pre-crisis expectations. The first day back to work should be focused on making the first step toward a stable future—little by little. Overwhelming already stressed employees will simply impede any organizational progress and will likely result in increased absences and turnover.

Successful leadership in a crisis requires a readjustment of organizational assumptions and goals, and a focus on team building. The goals of any organization should be a reflection of its core values, and employees should be central to that focus. Effective leaders work with employees to draft obtainable and realistic short-term goals for the organization. Employees are not going to be able to focus on long-term goals after an acute pandemic, so focus your efforts on building consensus around short-term goals. Also, I can’t stress this enough: Be realistic. Your organization is not going to be as profitable as it was after your employees have been at work for a few weeks. This process takes time, and the worst thing that you could do is to exhibit impatience. Instead, focus your efforts on team-building exercises and maybe even a short retreat. It would be beneficial for employees to be able to express their lived experiences, which will create long-lasting bonds among employees and between you and your employees. These bonds will fortify the organization and fuel its post-crisis profitability.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay productive.

Check out our latest book, Cracking the Organizational Climate and Culture Code at 

In times of change and crisis, the true underlying foundations of an organization's culture and climate will be exposed. If you have a great culture and climate, that will help your organization navigate difficult times successfully; but if your culture and climate are lacking, then you are definitely going to need some help. Nicole L. Turner Consulting is here to help. Contact us at


[1] Pearson, C. M., & Clair, J. A. (1998). Reframing crisis management. Academy of management review, 23(1), 59-76.

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