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Critical Crisis Management Skill For Leaders

(It's Not What You Think!)

Kamil Andrusz
Written By Kamil Andrusz

Crisis management consultant 

Can you guess which crisis management skill that is?

Let’s begin with a story

John, the CEO of a medium-sized company, was faced with a crisis that had the potential to completely derail his business. The company had recently launched a new product that was experiencing some major issues, and customers were starting to become extremely dissatisfied.

Despite the mounting evidence that something needed to be done, John refused to listen to the concerns of his employees, customers, and partners. He believed that he knew what was best for the company and that they simply needed to ride out the storm.

Unfortunately, John’s stubbornness only served to make the crisis worse. Customers continued to voice their complaints, and many of them even decided to take their business elsewhere. Meanwhile, the employees were feeling unheard and unvalued, and morale began to plummet.

As the crisis dragged on, it became clear that John’s approach was not working. The company was losing money and customers at an alarming rate, and it was clear that something needed to be done. Finally, John was forced to listen to the recommendations of her team and implement some much-needed changes to the product and the way the company was being run.

In the end, John’s refusal to listen to the concerns of his employees, customers, and partners ended up costing the company dearly. Had he been more open to their input, he may have been able to mitigate the crisis and save the business from such a steep decline.

One more story

Jane, the CEO of a small tech company, was faced with a crisis when the latest version of their SaaS platform was released with major bugs. Customers were experiencing issues with the product and were becoming increasingly frustrated.

Despite the pressure to quickly resolve the problems and move on, Jane knew that it was important to listen to the concerns of her employees, customers, and partners. She held meetings with all of these groups to gather their feedback and get a better understanding of the issues they were experiencing.

Using this information, Jane, and her team were able to prioritize the most pressing issues and work on finding solutions. They also communicated regularly with customers to keep them informed of their progress and to apologize for the inconvenience.

Thanks to Jane’s willingness to listen and act on the concerns of her employees, customers, and partners, the crisis was eventually resolved, and the company was able to get back on track. The transparency and communication that Jane demonstrated during this difficult time not only helped to resolve the crisis, but also helped to strengthen the relationships with all the company’s stakeholders.

Why listening is important

Listening is a valuable skill for leaders to have, even in times of normal operations. By listening to employees’ feedback and concerns, leaders can identify problem areas. And then make changes that can increase productivity and morale.

Listening is a valuable skill for leaders because it improves them. They can foster stronger relationships, improving communication, and gaining valuable insights and ideas. It results in a more positive and collaborative work environment.

Furthermore, listening can help leaders to be more effective communicators. Listening to what others say allows to understand their perspective. They can communicate in a way that is more relatable and persuasive. This is useful when seeking to gain buy-in for new initiatives or projects. Understanding of the needs and concerns leads to more effective messages and arguments.

Listening is also a crucial crisis management skill. Again, it helps leaders to gain a better understanding of the crisis. Their team and other stakeholders provide leaders with valuable information. Those insights allow them to make better decisions.

You must keep in mind that complete situational awareness is often not possible in a crisis. Events are unfolding and evolving, and new information is emerging. Leaders should not wait for all the data before making decisions. This can lead to delays and missed opportunities. Instead, they should balance having good-enough information with taking swift, decisive action. Actions that can help to reduce the damage and keep their organization on track.

Furthermore, listening is critical for building trust and credibility during a crisis. When leaders listen and show that they value the perspectives of others, they prove they care. And that they commit to finding the best possible solutions. This can help to build morale and foster a sense of collaboration and unity during a time of crisis. That can be vital for overcoming the challenges that lie ahead. In short, listening is the most critical skill a leader can have in times of crisis. It enables them to make informed decisions, build trust, and lead through tough times.

Benefits of listening (in and out of crisis)

Gaining accurate and timely information

The first benefit is the ability to gain accurate and timely information. Listening to team members, clients, and stakeholders gives an understanding of the situation. It allows making informed decisions. This helps to prevent misunderstandings and miscommunications that can further complicate a crisis.

Building trust and credibility with team members

Another benefit is the ability to build trust and credibility with team members. When leaders listen to others’ perspectives, it fosters a sense of teamwork and unity. This is important during a crisis when team members may be feeling anxious or uncertain.

Demonstrating empathy and compassion

Demonstrating empathy and compassion through listening is another benefit. Thanks to these, leaders provide emotional support and help to create a sense of security. Understanding and acknowledging the feelings and experiences of others, shows they care. It has an enormous value in times of crisis when people may be feeling overwhelmed or distressed.

How to be a better listener in a crisis

Practice active listening

Focus on the speaker, paying attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues. Ask questions to clarify understanding. Engage with the speaker with genuine interest to improve your ability to understand.

One technique that I often use as part of active listening is paraphrasing. Paraphrasing what the other person is saying during a conversation is beneficial. It helps to prove understanding and reinforces the main points of the conversation.

When individuals paraphrase, they restate the key points of what the speaker has said. It ensures that they have understood the message. This also helps to clarify any misunderstandings or confusion. And ensures that both parties are on the same page. It also helps to build rapport and show the speaker that their perspective is being heard and valued.

By listening and paraphrasing, individuals can improve communication and strengthen relationships.

Active listening
Active listening

Avoid interrupting, making rash assumptions, and jumping to conclusions

Interrupting another person during a conversation is generally considered bad. It can seem disrespectful and can disrupt the flow of the conversation. Interrupting may prevent the speaker from expressing their thoughts or completing their ideas. This can lead to misunderstandings and frustration.

Interrupting gives the impression of lack of interest in what the speaker has to say. This can damage relationships and trust. It is best to allow the speaker to finish their thoughts and wait for a natural pause before speaking. This helps to show respect and ensure that all have an opportunity to take part in the conversation. It is tempting to interrupt with a response, especially during a crisis, but it’s better to listen.

Making assumptions can be dangerous. And that is an understatement of the year. Assumptions often lead to misunderstandings and incorrect conclusions. When making assumptions, guesses or beliefs replace the missing information. And this may not be accurate, to say the least. It can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications.

For example, someone assumes ill-intent in another person’s action. Individuals quite often attribute motives or intentions to others. Frequently they are not accurate. Because of this, they may respond in a way that is inappropriate or harmful. This leads to problems in relationships.

Jumping to conclusions can also be misleading. It involves making decisions or forming opinions without considering all the relevant information. People often draw conclusions without considering the facts when they jump to conclusions. This leads to incorrect assumptions or actions.

This can be problematic in a crisis. In a crisis, accurate information and sound decision-making are critical. Take the time to consider all the available and relevant information. Seek to understand the situation before reacting. This will allow avoiding jumping to conclusions and will support making better decisions.

Seek to understand before reacting

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. This is one of the habits from Stephen Covey’s “7 habits of highly effective people”. A book that I value and recommend.

Seeking to understand before reacting is another way to improve listening skills. It can be tempting to immediately respond to a situation or problem. But, it is important to take the time to understand the context before reacting. Considering all angles and understanding others’ perspectives improves the ability to respond.

Understanding before reacting is an essential communication skill. It makes conflict resolution easier. It allows making better decisions. Seeking to understand someone’s perspective shows that you value their thoughts and feelings. It indicates that you are open to hearing their side of the story. This helps to create trust and respect, which is essential for any healthy relationship.

Additionally, seeking first to understand helps to avoid misunderstandings. It reduces the chances of a miscommunication. Taking the time to understand someone’s perspective gives an understanding of their needs. It allows responding to them in a way that is more effective and appropriate. This helps to prevent conflicts from escalating and allows finding win-win solutions.

It is an important skill helping to build stronger, more positive relationships. It strengthens your communication skills.

Examples of leaders who mastered the listening crisis management skill

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister

The first example of listening in a crisis is New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. Ardern got recognition for her swift and decisive response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other leaders and experts overseas warned of the devastating potential of the virus. Ardern took their warnings to heart and took appropriate action.

Experts advised her to introduce a lockdown to reduce the spread of the virus. Instead of hesitating, Ardern made the bold decision to “go hard and early”. She imposed measures such as closing the country’s borders and enforcing a lockdown. Her decisive action saved an estimated 3000. Willingness to listen and act on the advice in the face of a crisis is a testament to her leadership skills. And her commitment to the well-being of her people.

Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks

Schultz received credit for his proactive approach to crisis management. He returned to Starbucks in January 2008 amidst the financial crisis. Schultz listened to the concerns of his employees and customers. For example, he reduced employee hours rather than laying anyone off.

In March 2008, Starbucks launched “My Starbucks Idea”. It was a platform for customers to share their thoughts and ideas with the company and with each other. The platform covered many topics. Including product suggestions, service improvements, advertising, corporate social responsibility, in-store music, and more. Over 1.3 million users submitted more than 93,000 ideas on social media, leading to 5.5 million monthly page views.

After the financial crisis of 2007/08, Starbucks needed to rebuild customer relationships. It needed to show commitment to quality and consistency. Starbucks also wanted to highlight the focus on community building and environmental responsibility. “My Starbucks Idea” was a direct link between customers and the company’s headquarters. Starbucks listened to and implemented customers’ ideas.

The initiative helped to create a passionate fan base. Customers globally formed communities around shared interests. Interests like Wi-Fi, soy milk, comfortable seating, and frappuccinos. Starbucks reestablished trust in the brand by implemented over 100 customer ideas.

Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford

Many people praise Mulally for his leadership during the 2008 financial crisis. When he took over as CEO in 2006, Ford was on the verge of bankruptcy. He implemented the “Working Together” system. It was a strategy designed to improve communication and collaboration within the company.

The system was first used to turn around the Boeing corporation. Boeing faced financial problems after the September 11th attacks. Numerous customers cancelled their orders for planes. Other delayed delivery of their orders. The situation was difficult and the “Working Together” system helped to solve problems.

The system had several key principles. First, it emphasized transparency and honesty in communication. He encouraged employees at all levels of the company to speak up and share their ideas and concerns in the open. He also held weekly meetings where he would provide updates on the company’s progress. Those meeting included listening to feedback from employees.

Second, the system focused on teamwork and collaboration. Mulally encouraged employees to work together across departments and functions. Together, they could solve problems and achieve common goals. He also established cross-functional teams to tackle specific challenges facing the company.

The “Working Together” system was instrumental in helping Ford weather the financial crisis. It even emerged stronger. Promoting open communication, teamwork, and collaboration, allowed to bring the company together. It drove the positive change.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the CEO of Microsoft acted to protect his employees. He heard their concerns about the spread of the virus. So, Microsoft implemented measures to keep the employees safe. This included optional remote work, increased cleaning and sanitization efforts in the offices. Nadella provided regular updates on the company’s response to the pandemic. And solicited the employees’ feedback.

Satya Nadella also listened to the needs of his customers. Microsoft provided them with the tools and resources they required. During COVID-19 pandemic, there was a great shift to remote working and learning. Nadella recognized that this presented challenges for many people. And he took steps to support them. This included offering free access to products and services, such as Teams and Office 365. Microsoft also provided resources and guidance on how to use these tools.

Nadella demonstrated strong crisis leadership. He listened to both his employees and customers. He embraced their needs and acted to support them. This helped to maintain the trust and loyalty of both employees and customer.

Conclusion – Listening is critical

In conclusion, it is clear that listening is a critical crisis management skill. Business leaders should make listening a top priority in their crisis management strategies. It breeds situational awareness. Leaders can make informed decisions that can help to mitigate the impact of a crisis.

Listening and understanding the perspectives of those around them, enables effective communication. This not only helps in crises, but also creates a culture of trust and collaboration. It’s useful for any organization, in normal operations as well. In times of crisis and beyond, listening is key.

The transformative power of listening is not limited to times of crisis. A culture of listening and open communication creates a more positive and productive environment. You build stronger relationships, and make better decisions on a day-to-day basis.

I can’t stress this enough: effective listening is a skill any business owner should have. When stakeholders feel like their input is being heard and considered, they are more likely to trust and support the decisions made.

Here is a summary of some tips for how business owners can use and elevate their listening skills:

  1. Practice active listening: This means actively paying attention to what the other person is saying, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak. Use nonverbal cues like nodding and maintaining eye contact to show that you are engaged.
  2. Avoid interrupting: It can be tempting to interrupt when you have a different perspective or want to share your thoughts, but it’s important to let the other person finish speaking before jumping in.
  3. Seek first to understand: Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand their perspective, rather than listening just to respond.
  4. Clarify and confirm: If you’re not certain that you understand what the other person is saying, it’s okay to ask for clarification. This helps ensure that you clearly understand their perspective.
  5. Be open-minded: Be willing to consider other perspectives and viewpoints, even if you don’t agree with them. This indicates that you are open to hearing all sides of an issue.

By practicing these listening skills, business owners can foster open and honest communication with their stakeholders. This can be particularly important during times of crisis when trust and support are especially important.

So, as the 2023 begins, let’s all make a commitment. Let’s commit to listening more, both during times of crisis and in our normal operations.

Listening: a critical crisis management skill
Listening: a critical crisis management skill for leaders
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