HR Crisis Management: #1 Supporting Leaders

Lucy Adams on April 20, 2020

HR Crisis Management: #1 Supporting Leaders


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As an HRD of some fairly big organisations, I would have said I was well-used to leading HR through crises, whether it was the fall out of the global recession or something a bit more isolated such as the Savile crisis whilst at the BBC. But clearly nothing has prepared HR for what we’re going through now.

Many of you are under huge strain as you attempt to support your organisation and leaders through the current crisis. The HR people in my network are up to their necks in furloughing staff, coping with the challenges of remote working or handling the personal crises of their leaders and employees – all whilst worrying about the looming cloud of recession and balancing their own personal needs of parents, children and friends.

It can be tricky to transfer the tactics we deployed in previous difficult periods when there are so many aspects to this that are different or further reaching but there are some that we can re-use and adapt. In this blog I’ll share the ones that seem to be the most recyclable.

Over successive blogs, I’ll focus on two of the key areas HR needs to get to grips with during the current crisis:

  • Supporting leaders
  • Getting the work done

Supporting leaders through the crisis

First up, supporting leaders through the crisis.

Throughout, HR is going to be asked to provide absolute certainty and clarity – to provide rules and process – and of course, in some instances this can be useful. But during a crisis it is more important than ever to avoid the temptation to position HR as the panacea to all leaders’ dilemmas.

Now, more than ever, HR can help leaders more by NOT providing detailed prescribed rules and instead treating them as adults who are more than capable of using their judgement wisely and effectively. Moreover, we are currently witnessing how people at all levels of the organisation are capable of amazing things when freed from traditional constraints; their creativity, their energy, the things they can achieve with very little, how they can adapt to change really fast. We can support our leaders by helping them recognise that the way to get through this crisis is not necessarily through traditional command and control approaches. They can’t possibly have all the answers right now and need to trust their people to do the right thing, to know more about what might be needed on the ground and to have the ideas to help the business get through its darkest period.

It is vital that HR resist centralising control

In a great recent article by McKinsey, a number of leaders talked about what had worked for them during previous crises and one thing that all agreed on was the need for leaders to empower and trust – often at the very moment when our inclination is hold on tight and impose even greater control. For example, Manley Hopkinson, who served as an officer in the Royal Navy during the first Gulf War says, ‘It is vital that a leader resist centralising control. The temptation in a time of crisis is for leaders to put themselves at the centre of all activity … even though precisely the opposite is needed.’

In a similar vein, Hugo Bague, who headed up organisational resources at Rio Tinto during the Ebola crisis said ‘Not every decision should be made by the central office headquarters. Local teams are often the best positioned to judge the situation on the ground and their decisions should not be second-guessed. We said, “You are the best to make that assessment (to leave Guinea or stay), because we can’t judge the health risk on the ground for you.”’

We’re seeing smart leaders using this empowering, adult to adult approach right now, for example CEO Dan Price of tech company Gravity is choosing to meet virtually with 10 employees at a time across the whole company to get their views on how they can get through losing half their revenue overnight without layoffs rather than consulting just with his senior team and communicating their decision.

Helping leaders to use judgement and instinct

HR’s crisis management support for leaders needs a blend of clear guidance, used sparingly when it’s helpful, and an encouragement for local leaders and employees to trust their instincts and their judgement, rather than looking to their HR business partner for a set of rules on how to deal with this situation. This is a time when great leaders are setting a broad direction, asking the right questions and trusting their people to deliver, rather than micro-managing tasks or implementing pre-defined rules. This is a time when great HR supports leaders to frame that direction, gives them examples of the questions they might ask and gives them the confidence to take a step back.

Helping leaders to be more human

The last few years has seen a gradual and welcome dismantling of our bulky HR processes in favour of more human approaches. For example, many of us have dropped our annual appraisals in favour of frequent check-ins and heavy, formal training programmes have been replaced with self-managed, bite-sized, nudge-based learning.

This trend from process to human is set to be accelerated through the crisis. If we have learned anything through this desperate period is that what matters most is human connections. And many of our leaders, instead of lamenting the loss of HR processes, have readily adopted a more human approach with their people. They are asking about their families (and genuinely want to know the answer!), they’re being more informal as they webcam from their lounge and try to stop the cat from walking past the screen, they’re showing greater vulnerability and humility as they admit they can’t predict what’s going to happen. And their team enjoy this new side of their boss. Their humanity goes down well.

What are the great leaders doing right now?

They are showing compassion, demonstrating empathy, doing the right thing without waiting to be told, keeping it simple and showing a pragmatic optimism and, all the while, are building trust with their people.

We can support our leaders by giving them practical tools to help with the new informal style of conversations we’d like them to adopt. Whilst some leaders will not have any difficulty with them, we can replace our processes that we forced them to follow, with hints and tips, to help the ones that struggle a bit more. We have a Box of Conversations and a Box of Meetings that help by providing prompts and conversation or meeting starters that might be useful – or you can devise your own. Now is a good time to acknowledge that we need to show them what ‘good looks like’ without the formal training programmes or lengthy manuals.

We can support our leaders by encouraging them to reflect on their learnings from this crisis in real time rather than as part of the inevitable ‘lessons learned’ wash up when it’s all over. HR can help them to reflect on what they have learned about their individual team members – who surprised them, what new talents have they uncovered, etc? And we can help them understand more about themselves – how they respond to stress, how have they grown as a result of the crisis and what has worked better than they thought?

When we take stock after the crisis it will be those leaders who showed their human side who we need to thank and celebrate, not the ones who complied with HR process and got their forms in on time. HR can play a huge role to help give leaders the confidence to show this human side and to see it not as a weakness, but a key leadership strength.

Next time we’ll focus on how HR can juggle all those competing priorities and deliver with impact during the crisis.

Till then, I hope you are managing to stay safe and well.

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