The Leader's Guide To Managing COVID-19 Panic

Published on March 25, 2020

While it's not yet clear the extent to which COVID-19 will take its toll on our collective epidemiological, social, and economic health, it’s becoming very clear that people are frightened and businesses are preparing for down-side scenarios. If you are a business leader asking the tough questions about how resilient your business is, I suggest we start with a more foundationally important question: How resilient are your people?  

For anyone managing people, this new business climate entails navigating much more than the actual impacts on the workforce, supply chain, and customer experience—it means keeping people focused, agile, and able to manage through fast-changing and adverse situations. Clearly, keeping your workforce resilient in this climate is going to be a challenge, but also an opportunity.  

The opportunity starts with trust and the role employers and business leaders currently play in driving social consciousness. Public trust in employers is at an all-time high, compared to trust in media and the government, according to Edelman research, which has been publishing an annual barometer of trust in institutions for over 12 years. Also, globally 92% of employees agree that it's critically important for the CEO to respond to challenging times and crises. 

So this is the time for leaders to step up and help people manage their own fears and panic, and thrive as best as they can. People are uncertain about the future, and that means they aren't focused on being their best and perhaps doing their best. Resilient leaders may be the last defense in holding the line on business goals as well as the safety and well-being of their employees. 

In terms of the challenge, COVID-19 isn't just hype, although the media frenzy may be amping up our fears, which can impact business decision-making both top-down and bottom-up. Every employee plays a part in the business ecosystem and when people begin to make decisions based on emotional reactions, everything from high-level goals to operating practices can be at risk. According to Professor Steven Miller, at Rutgers University’s Journalism and Media Studies Department, “It’s just amazing how quickly word about this [coronavirus] has spread, the intensity of the coverage. The advent of social media [brings out] people’s need for instantaneous information,” he says. “It’s called feeding the beast.” 

Beyond the panic and anxiety, increasing disruption from travel bans and work from home mandates, supply chain disruptions, deferral of non-strategic investments and a general recession-like climate will impact our day-to-day business-as-usual. When people are dispersed, it is harder to check in with them, harder to manage cultural implications and potentially harder to stay agile and adaptive. In times of pressure, however, staying agile and adaptive are more important than ever.  

The bottom line for leaders: Recognize employees are wired to ”go negative.” It's human nature to be afraid of spiders, tigers and the dark. Negativity tends to snowball, derail people and cascade into catastrophizing. Therefore it’s critical right now to practice and enforce realistic positivity so that even if we cannot control the situation, we can control our response to it. 

(Source:  AICPA – CPA Letter Daily – Forbes – March 6, 2020)