How Leaders Can Manage Decision Making in a Pandemic

Liz Kislik is a consultant and coach, helping leaders of Fortune 500 companies to non-profits, move their organisations and careers forward. Liz is also a speaker for TEDx and other organisations, offering her professional advice. Here she talks about how leaders can manage decision making in this pandemic and turn feels of guilt into transformative action.

With over 30 years of developing high-performance leaders and workforces, I’ve helped clients such as American Express, Orvis, The Girl Scouts, Comcast, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Highlights for Children solve their thorniest problems while strengthening their top and bottom lines.

It’s hard for many of us to feel in control as the global pandemic drags on. And yet, many business leaders nonetheless feel a tremendous amount of guilt about the impact Covid-19 has had on employees and customers, from layoffs and closures to disruptions in service. Leaders understand that corporate action can lead to personal turmoil, whether it’s the loss of health insurance for a laid-off employee with underlying conditions, the new inability to care for the special need of a child, or an increased risk of eviction.

Guilt is an upsetting emotion to reckon with. But it’s also a sign that you’re a conscientious leader. In my work consulting with hundreds of responsible, caring, and thoughtful leaders, I’ve learned that you can transform that pang of guilt into a trigger to help you reevaluate and improve the way you approach your employees and company, and demonstrate compassionate leadership in difficult circumstances. Here are six ways to do it.

Take preemptive action. Especially as businesses start the process of transitioning back into the office, many leaders are understandably concerned about their employees’ health. One of my clients recognized that she would not forgive herself if any of her employees caught Covid-19, or worse, died as a result of workplace exposure. So, she became fiercely proactive: She studied the available medical and governmental guidelines and adopted operating policies that exceeded them, from spacing people further than six feet apart to creating the equivalent of pods of people who worked together, thus limiting overall exposure. When some of her company’s offices were permitted to open, only volunteers were welcomed back, and compliance with health checks, distancing, and masking were required. Other clients have moved their planned return dates into 2021 as a way to reduce any risk from work or travel, and to help employees plan ahead for their family’s needs.

Don’t separate yourself from your team. Leaders who actively share in their team’s pain often feel more confident making tough decisions, particularly when they make the effort to face their employees directly. Many companies have suffered financial losses during this period and are still being forced to implement furloughs, reduced hours, or pay cuts. When leaders delegate the responsibility of sharing bad news to functionaries or people who aren’t responsible for the decision, it feels demoralizing, disrespectful, and lacks empathy. At one client’s organization, the CEO explained via a company-wide videoconference why the furloughs and pay cuts were the best solution, and that he was also taking a pay cut — and then took questions from every employee who asked one. As a result, the staff was remarkably positive and morale actually seemed to improve.

Correct your own mistakes as publicly as possible. When you’ve made a decision or taken action in error that has negatively affected others, take remedial action as soon as you know or can. Leaders may feel guilty if it turns out their earlier information was inaccurate or misleading, even if it was the best they could do at the time. But they can reset and repair some of the damage by acknowledging their mistake and then communicating new developments frequently and consistently. Dr. Anthony Fauci’s shift to recommending that Americans wear face masks to help prevent transmission of Covid-19 despite having recommended against them earlier is a good example of this.

One of my clients told me that a senior leader at their company spoke informally (but publicly) about employees needing to return to the office as soon as the state reopened, before there were any concrete plans in place to prevent transmission of the coronavirus. Immediately, managers were flooded with questions from anxious employees. When the leader was made aware of the level of distress her comments caused, she made a company-wide, formal statement to reassure everyone that their needs would be addressed, that there would be no blanket mandate to return until they could do so safely, and apologized for causing unnecessary concerns, especially in such a difficult time.

Provide extra support for people who need it. Leaders who know their team members are already struggling can feel significant guilt if they believe they are adding to their burdens, especially when companies have to reduce salaries or conduct layoffs. But there are ways to offer team members other forms of support. This could be allowing employees who have been laid off to continue to access benefits and services, including helping them find new jobs.

Consider increasing structural support, like implementing flex time, rotating meeting times and adjusting deadlines, or increasing formal check-ins with each employee. Employees who are still on staff after layoffs may be struggling. This is on top of the stress of parenting school-age children, caring for family members with health vulnerabilities, or coping with ongoing structural inequality, racial injustice, and violence. Some employees may face mental health issues, while others will feel disrupted and distracted.

One of my clients created an HR rapid response team that actively solicited concerns from each employee; not only did people feel reassured, the group was able to provide significant input to functional leaders about what to anticipate or how and when to adjust. Another client asked me to conduct video workshops to give staff techniques for stress reduction, time and project management, and better team cooperation including understanding when and how to ask for help.

Model appropriate behavior to set a healthy example. Many empathetic leaders feel guilty about their team members overworking and burning out, particularly given expectations of extreme levels of productivity and the lack of boundaries between work and non-work activities that many professionals and knowledge workers are experiencing. Rather than just worrying about employees’ stress and potential burnout, leaders can help them put the brakes on overwork. They can demonstrate how to maintain boundaries by not sending or responding to emails and other messages outside working hours. They can discuss how they are balancing their own personal and work commitments. At casual get-togethers and zoom happy hours, leaders can share information about their vacation plans and encourage team members to make and share their own plans. They can also describe their own challenges, and acknowledge employees who share their tips and resources for managing workload and scheduling.

Focus on appreciation and gratitude. For those leaders whose businesses are benefiting from the pandemic, or who are in a position to invest in development efforts that will have tremendous post-pandemic payoffs, their satisfaction with their team’s successes may be undermined by the realization that many other businesses are suffering. They may feel guilty that they are doing so well when others are struggling so much. A gratitude practice can be helpful in finding a sense of “control in acceptance” and the ability to appreciate the good. An even greater benefit arises if leaders then use their guilty feelings as inspiration to help others, both inside and outside their own organizations.

It’s understandable that leaders are struggling with guilty feelings as they see the disruptions and struggles that the Covid-19 crisis is causing their employees and colleagues, sometimes specifically as a result of their own actions. But if leaders reframe their feelings of guilt as an opportunity to rigorously and thoughtfully make the best decisions possible, communicate clearly, and behave with compassion and concern for both their employees and themselves, they can help steer their teams and organizations toward better times.


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