Prabu David: Leading in a Pandemic
July 24, 2020
Prabu David is the dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. The following Faculty Voice is repurposed content from his Linkedin.
The current pandemic poses unique leadership and communication challenges. The changing dynamics of the virus, combined with evolving scientific understanding and a hyper-polarized social and political climate, require a response that is more nuanced than traditional approaches to crisis and risk communication.
To begin, leaders are faced with the task of communicating a mixed message. On the one hand, leaders encourage safety and social distancing. On the other, they invite groups to gather in closed spaces, increasing the risk of the spread of the virus. Even when leaders are confident in their risk mitigation plans, communicating the risk-reward tradeoff to employees, parents and students is a difficult charge.
Trust. All risk is laced with uncertainty, and the novel coronavirus is no exception. To cope with uncertainty, the instinctive human response is to seek information, which is often expressed as a demand for transparency. Leaders and communicators would be wise to interpret the demand for transparency as a demand for trust. Who is trustworthy and what should one believe from the avalanche of information?
In her influential book, "Who Can you Trust?," Rachel Botsman, defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.” During times of great uncertainty, the leader’s task is to instill confidence by presenting choices and risks through clear communication and emotional connection. Though it may seem counterintuitive, confidence can be instilled through vulnerability, which makes the leader authentic and easy to relate to. A demonstrable act of practicing vulnerability is delegating authority and entrusting others with leadership.
Distributed leadership. Conventional practice in crisis management is a top-down response from the CEO or the central office. While this approach may be suitable in some crisis, such as responding to an incident, the prolonged and uncertain nature of the pandemic requires a more decentralized approach.
A distributed approach to leadership makes the organization nimbler. Core values, principles and policies developed by central administration are given to local leadership to adapt to their particular situations. This requires trust in managers and supervisors to make leadership decisions that conform to core values.
It also provides leaders across the organization with the flexibility to craft tailored solutions. Distributed leadership works because team members have strong relationships with lower- and mid-level managers and leaders with whom they work side by side.
Distributed leadership could compromise consistency in decision making, which can be addressed through training. When making autonomous decisions, leaders should be trained to differentiate between decisions that they are empowered to make and decisions that require additional input from higher-level leaders.
Values and principles. Trust in leadership also depends on a shared understanding of values and principles. A detailed reopening plan with guidelines and best practices is necessary for large and complex organizations, but it may not be sufficient. It is important to distill the reopening plan into core values or principles that resonate across the organization. These values and principles should serve as the guiding light for all key decisions.
Flexibility. Distributed leadership draws strength by transferring authority to local levels, allowing for nimble and situationally-sensitive decision making. Strict adherence to a litany of rules that are managed top-down will stifle creativity and flexibility. During uncertainty, it is better to delineate a few “no-compromise” rules, such as wearing face coverings, social distancing and hand washing. Expectations that are not enforceable can be presented as best practices that are strongly encouraged. Differentiating between rules and expectations allows for strict enforcement of rules, with some wiggle room on expectations.
One Voice. Rules and expectations cannot have resonance without shared understanding throughout the organization. And shared understanding is achieved through clear and concise messages that are presented consistently by leaders at all levels of the organization. Given the politicized response to the virus and its implementation in a polarized society, a one-voice response is not an easy task. Yet, it is important to rely on quality scientific evidence and present a consistent message across the organization. For the message to resonate with one voice, it requires both shared understanding as well as effective communication at all levels of the organization.
In summary, successful reopening of businesses, schools and universities requires courageous leadership that is built on trust and vulnerability, which is best achieved through distributed leadership than a highly centralized approach. While core values, principles and policies should emanate from the center, there should be flexibility for managers and leaders across the organization to customize solutions to fit their particular contexts.
This crisis will put to test the trust employees have in their organizations and, conversely, the trust organizations have in their employees. Botsman calls this a trust leap. As we prepare for the challenging months ahead, it is important to remember that the only way to build trust is to earn it through actions.
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