3 Lessons About Leading When People are Afraid

by Jennifer Fondrevay

The coronavirus crisis is a time for calm, confident leaders to really step up. Steady hands can build the confidence needed to ride out the storm.

Right now, there are more people who are afraid than not. It’s a fear driven by uncertainty magnified by the fact that our authority figures—the ones we look to in times like this—don’t seem to have all the answers and consistently contradict one another. That doesn’t lend itself to a calm. 

I’ve experienced numerous business situations where fear was the operative emotion. Mergers, acquisitions, and business transformations bring with them a lot of uncertainty. Even when the strategy or business case seems well supported at the outset, it’s hard to know if it’ll work until it actually happens. In the current environment, we are facing a similar dilemma: We have a response strategy for the pandemic but no clear sense of what the future holds.  

I would never equate the uncertainty that can ensue post-M&A deal to what we are facing now, yet there are lessons learned from those experiences that do apply. In researching my book, Now What? A Survivor’s Guide for Thriving Through Mergers & Acquisitions, I interviewed 60 executives who lead through M&A deal uncertainty. They shared one common realization: everyone reacts to change differently. You need to be prepared for that.

As a manager, maybe you have team members who are fraught with anxiety. Or maybe you’ve even witnessed other leaders melting down, which is having an impact on your team. Based on interviews with executives who’ve repeatedly dealt with uncertainty, here’s how to lead during uncertain times:

Acceptance comes at different rates 

Everyone reacts to change differently. How quickly people accept that change will vary. You can’t predict it or control it. The same can be said of what we are facing now. There were people who quickly accepted the pandemic news and took precautions. But we all saw some who at first said, “This is minor, go about your business.” It’s the equivalent of “nothing has changed.” And then there was a big percentage of people in the middle left wondering what to believe.

Now that we’re weeks into the coronavirus crisis, people, thankfully, have largely accepted that we need to change our behavior for this situation to play out positively.  As a leader, we need to emphasize the importance of taking the guidance seriously and helping our teams accept the new reality.

Fear elicits “survivor” mode

When things are going great, people get along. When things start to go south and people are afraid for their jobs, or in this case their lives, you will see a different version of them—and it’s rarely positive. People go into survival mode. Why do you think the TV show Survivor has endured and remains popular? People are fascinated to watch how someone goes from being a friend and ally to everyone for themselves.

Be prepared for this reality. People who you assumed would be your rock can completely lose it and abandon you. When someone you trusted adopts a self-preservation attitude, it can be hard not to judge that person harshly. Try not to. People’s reactions to fearful situations are informed by their past, and you may not completely appreciate their current family situation. Our present environment, where so much is uncertain, can trigger people’s innermost fears. Recognize this may be the case. That said, don’t dwell on it either. Move on quickly and discover the people who can lead through times of uncertainty.

Look for levelheaded leaders

Once you realize that some previous leaders may not be capable when they don’t have all the answers, be open to the possibility that others who you’d not previously considered as a leader can surprise you. Don’t waste time trying to bring along those you previously counted on if they are losing it—you don’t have time for that. Look to those people who are calm and levelheaded. They may not be the person you thought you’d turn to, but don’t discount the possibility that they may be who can lead now. In times of high uncertainty, people who are afraid are willing to follow those who appear grounded in the face of so many unknowns. 

To keep fear at bay for everyone, two final pieces of advice: make daily communication a priority, and focus on the things you can control, not the things you can’t.

People fill in a lack of information with worst-case scenarios, which ratchets up fear. We’re seeing the fallout of that since the initial COVID-19 communication was limited and contradictory. Be honest with what you know and transparent about what is still being figured out (emphasizing that it is being figured out). Pretending to know it all is not leadership, nor is waiting until you have all of the answers before you communicate. Use technology, frequently derided for isolating us, to connect and communicate. If you help to allay people’s fears, not with uninformed platitudes but with an educated view of what is known and what that could mean for the team, people who are afraid will have more confidence in you. 

The more a team feels in control of what it is doing, the better chance you have of minimizing fear. Don’t waste energy on things you can’t control. This doesn’t mean you don’t develop a plan B. Having those plans can calm fears, showing you’re prepared for potential challenges. But don’t drive yourself crazy with those. Focus on the work and short-term risks to feel prepared, especially since changes seem to come daily. 

Remember: In all of this uncertainty, there is an opportunity to be found. Everyone is figuring out what the new normal is. There’s nothing like a global crisis to level the playing field. While we don’t know today what the long-term effects of this crisis will be, we can rest assured some good things will come if we stay calm, keep our teams focused, and look for the opportunities.