A playbook for managing & leading in difficult times & crises

This is a playbook for managing and leading in difficult times. It covers areas like leadership checklists, a 360 guide for management in difficult times, and how to communicate effectively, including a communication template for crisis communication. Everything in here is based on my experience building and running organisations in a variety of management roles, from engineering manager to VP and CEO.

Times of crisis require both management (in the sense of bringing order, predictability) and leadership (in the sense of coping with ambiguity and change), and leadership can come from anyone at all levels, so pick what works for you in your role as a manger and/or leader.

Contents of this playbook

Each section works and can be used individually, links jump to the section on the page.

Difficult times” and “crises”

I’m using “difficult times” and “crises” here as a very broad term to encompass all events that lead to unexpected, sudden, and high-impact change and can therefore be difficult to process for humans. This can be world- or local events like pandemics, wars and violent conflicts, civil uprising against issues of social justice, or humanitarian crises. “Difficult times” may also be company acquisitions (acquiring and being acquired), mergers, re-orgs, or major changes in direction or business issues like layoffs. Many approaches listed here may also be useful in more common, but sometimes still challenging events like managing and communicating manager changes or team changes.

Why difficult times are hard

Situations like these hijack our amygdala, cause stress, anxiety, and trigger our fight-or-flight-response. They often involve many unknowns and can be very scary, sometimes they can even directly or indirectly impact us, our loved ones, and/or people we care about. In addition to an unexpected change, they often continue bringing change as situations evolve, and they often evolve in unpredictable ways. And while a lot of information may be available through media and social media, this flood of information can also become very overwhelming in itself, and it may be difficult to know what information to trust.

Your experience of these events will most likely differ from the experience of the people that you’re working with and managing. It’s very likely that everyone you work with will have an individual and different experience and response. In addition, difficult times often affect members of underrepresented and marginalised groups disproportionately. It’s our job as leaders to take that into account.

“A talk about Nothing” covers in-depth the aspect of how to recognise your own viewpoint and differences with others when it comes to social issues and experiences living in the world.

Leading & managing in difficult times

Principles for leaders in difficult times

  • Lead with empathy, focus on health and safety.
  • Communicate quickly and clearly.
  • Don’t make yourself the bottleneck and don’t centralise all decisions to you. Same goes for everyone on your team. Distribute as much as possible.
  • Contain context and provide focus. Crises often raise a lot of questions that span a broad context, from concerns about immediate questions like people’s health and safety or tactical business impact, to long-term questions about impact on the world, individuals, or on strategy and the business. And it’s understandable that these questions come up, but it can also add to the exhaustion and intensity of the situation because of the cognitive load that comes with it. Try to contain context and provide focus wherever possible.
  • Don’t add further uncertainty and confusion. Times of crisis are already times of uncertainty as-is. Our job as leaders is not to add further uncertainty and confusion to the mix. This means: Be clear and crisp in your communication, be clear about what to expect from you, and be as reliable with how you show up as you can.
  • Create and hold space for people to process and cope in the way that’s most useful to them. Everyone will respond and cope in very different ways. Create and hold the space for everyone’s response.
  • Don’t make it about you and your feelings. You, too, are human and may feel a lot of different emotions. However, there’s still a power delta between you and your team(s), and while it’s important to stay true to yourself, don’t make the situation about you, and don’t put people who may be more affected by
  • Lead with transparency. Information reduces emotional distress, can address concerns and therefore decrease fears, and demonstrates that you’re concerned, involved, and on top of the situation (to the degree that’s possible).

A checklist of what to do as a leader in difficult times

A quick overview of important tasks in somewhat sequenced order, several with more in-depth information further below:

  1. Check in with yourself, your manager, your team, and individuals (see more below)
  2. Communicate (see more below)
  3. Get ready to decide faster than you may have in the past.
  4. Define priorities ruthlessly and update them as as needed and as the situation evolves. Early on, your focus may be on employee safety, financial liquidity, and operational continuity, and may later shift. Decide what not to do. Now is most likely not the time for the big, long-term initiatives and huge expenses.
  5. Clarify decision makers. Resist the tempation to centralise decision making and push decision making downward as much as possible.
  6. Distribute and delegate responsibilities between tactical and strategic to manage your response. As breadth of context continues to increase, split roles and responsibilities to keep it cognitively manageable:
    • Monitoring: Have someone who’s dedicated to regularly monitoring the situation as it evolves, parsing information, and passing it on to you and others who need to be informed.
    • Management of the daily work: Delegate some of the daily management of your team’s/teams’ work to your team members.
    • Handling long-term/strategic view: Designate who’s owning maintaining a strategic view. Holding space for this view helps you plan for longer-term impacts and can be a crucial perspective as near-term changes occur frequently and decisions need to be made.
  7. Keep notes of lessons learned. I always have a document open where I jot down notes from things that come up or that I learn along the way (e.g.: “include x in initial message”) or questions that came up that I could’ve addressed myself. I’ve found this a really useful way to hone my leadership instincts and crisis management skills.
  8. Ask for help as needed. It’s dangerous to go alone.

Showing up as a leader during times of crisis

Check in with yourself

Many leaders and managers struggle with wanting to be there for their team(s) and organisations, but at the same time also coming up to their own boundaries, even more so when the Difficult Times are impacting them or their loved ones directly.

  • Check in with yourself regularly. You get to feel confused, sad, whatever it is you’re feeling, as well, and recognising these feelings can be important. It’s okay to not be okay.
  • Take action where you can. Set up monetary donations, donate items that are needed, go to protests, whatever feels right to you.
  • Take breaks & time off as needed. There are no heroes in times like these, and don’t try to be one. Take breaks, get sleep.
  • Find ways to process your own reactions and emotions. Speak with your own manager, a peer you trust, or other people who you’re close with.
  • Set up time for uninterrupted work. This can be really helpful not just for getting things done, but also to give some focus and provide some distraction.
  • Regulate your news consumption to what actually serves you.
  • If you can’t be there for your team(s) in the way that you’d want to, work with your first team to pull in support. Don’t go past your own limits.
  • Eat regularly.
  • Stay hydrated.

Check in with your manager

  • Check with your manager what’s expected or needed from you and what the business direction is. They may not have all the answers for you, but may be able to offer some guidance. If you’re unclear about what to do, check for alignment with your manager.
  • Partner with your manager as the situation evolves. They may also be working with a lot of ambiguity, if you have the resources check if/how you can support them.
  • Share questions, concerns, or responses that come up from your teams. This can help them and the broader leadership team adjust their response and tailor their communications to what’s actually on people’s minds, and may help impact policy (see more below).

Check in with your peers

  • If you have peers (fellow leaders/managers at your level), check in with them, coordinate, and stay in touch. This helps avoid duplicate work and you’ll be able to lean on each other.
  • Share what you learn, questions you’re receiving, information that you’re gathering. This way, you can help make management of this situation easier on others, and are fostering a culture of teamwork.
  • If appropriate, rely on each other for mutual support. Don’t expect them to have these resources though, but check in on each other’s capacity first (and don’t expect them to educate you, either 🙂 ).

Check in with your team(s)

  • Check in at a higher frequency. Initially, this may mean at least once a day.
  • Check in with folks and check what they need.
    • Everyone’s needs will differ, from people who want and need to take time to others who cope through work. Focus on listening well, and respect and support everyone’s individual needs.
    • Avoid jumping to conclusions or into problem-solving mode.
    • Some people may overwork as a coping mechanism, others may struggle with productivity. Meet people where they’re at and support them with their needs.
  • Clarify your expectations. What happens to projects that are in flight? Which priorities need to be adjusted? — Align with your manager on what the expectations are overall. Share your expectations with your team clearly.
  • Identify bottlenecks on your team. Distribute work and responsibilities as much as possible.
  • Make sure everyone on your team knows available resources & spaces for employees, e.g. time off, mental health days, sick leave, space for protesting, and other accommodations and resources.
  • If you are a manager of managers, increase frequency of check-ins with your management team. Line managers are often carrying a lot of the emotional labour in management, as well as the overall management at the micro level. Help them support their teams effectively and ensure their well-being.

Check in with everyone individually

  • Check in with everyone on your team one-to-one. This should take place as soon as possible.
  • Create space for talking about the difficult times — or not: Not everyone will want to talk to you about how the events are impacting them, and you can create space for whatever people need through approaching the topic openly: “There’s a lot on the news at the moment about X and I want to make sure you know it’s okay to discuss, but it’s also okay if you don’t want to talk about it. Is there anything that you’d like to talk about?”  Make sure that any response is clearly okay.
  • Support people whose productivity is impacted. Work with them to find alternate ways to work, break down work in different ways, or move/postpone goals, and help them take breaks or get the space they need to process.
  • Support people who are directly affected/impacted. Don’t make assumptions about how this is impacting them or how they feel, and instead ask them: “What do you need?”, “What can I / we as a company do to support you?” They may not have answers immediately and may just need time to process. Use lightweight and regular check-ins to let them know they’re not forgotten, and give them space as needed.

Stay connected

  • Check in regularly with yourself, your manager, peers, and team(s), to keep a pulse on how they’re doing.
  • Adjust frequency of check-ins as needed.
  • Hold space for people and teams to discuss what’s going on, but don’t force it. Some people may also look to work as a distraction, whereas others may seek community and support.

How to be mindful of our role and power as leaders

  • Believe people. When people say they don’t feel safe outside or they’re scared, don’t try to talk them out of it. Trust their emotions and experiences, and that they know what’s best for them.
  • Educate yourself, don’t ask members of underrepresented groups to educate you. As a leader, make sure you do the research on how situations may affect the people you’re working with. e.g. when it comes to issues of social justice and oppression. Identify issues that people on your team may be impacted by and read up on them. This will also make you a better, more well-rounded leader.
  • Don’t make it about you and your feelings. When people share difficult experiences with you, it’s only human and valid to express to them that you’re sorry for what they’re experiencing. But if you’re not affected yourself, don’t make it about you and your feelings.

Communication in difficult times

Communication tenets

  • Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Don’t sugar-coat or gloss over important information. People can sense BS. Transparency is key, withholding information breeds mistrust and uncertainty. Don’t minimise uncertainty if that’s what you’re dealing with.
  • Be clear with what you know, don’t know (yet) and are working on figuring out. Situations will keep evolving, and you can communicate that.
  • Establish a clear communication pattern to help people know what to expect, where information is shared, when it will be updated, and where they can ask questions.
  • Create a landing spot for questions: Create a dedicated shared document, Slack/Teams channel, a form, whatever best suits the way your teams communicate, and ideally coordinate this with other leaders so you centralise information. This means that people a) know where to go and b) can find questions that have already been answered 
    • Make it easy to find and easy to avoid this place, and direct conversation about the topic there. This is important because different topics will evoke different reactions in people, and what’s just interesting news for one person may be very triggering and disturbing for another. 
  • Review, repeat, reinforce all important information through multiple channels. Expect that around 60% of people will only see your first message, so make sure to repeat and reinforce any messaging.

A template for communicating information to teams and organisations

I’ve written many messages to teams and organisations in difficult times, and the template below is one I’ve been using and iterating on for many years.

Message template

  • This template can be used for all types of messages, from an initial announcement, to keeping teams up-to-date.
  • If you don’t have everything in there figured out yet, say so and communicate that you’re working on it. Rapid, yet thoughtful communication can go a long way. 
  • Before you start writing, ask yourself: What questions are people likely going to have now? What’s on their minds? — Embed those in your note.
What’s the situation?Some notions about what’s been going on; acknowledge that you’re aware of the situation. Be honest and authentic, don’t sugar-coat over complex and difficult situations. Be cautious with your assessment of the gravity/severity of the situation (e.g.: The events preceding the 2020 BlackLivesMatter protests were initially labelled by white journalists as “surprising”, when for a lot of Black and BIPOC people, those were yet another instance in a very long history of violence).
What do we (not) know?Share what you know and be explicit about what you don’t know. You likely won’t have all the answers. Be honest and embrace ambiguities.
What hasn’t changedShare guideposts that you are using for orientation now, and that others can look to as well. This can be your company values, your commitment to your teams’ well-being, or team principles. These can serve as reminders of a) what guides decisions now and b) something to look to as a certain factor in times of change.
What are your priorities?Your 3-4 most important priorities as a business and leader. This helps people understand what’s important for you.
What actions are you taking?You may just have heard of it yourself and are still trying to understand what’s going on and how to respond with your organisation, or there may already be a plan in pace (or one in the making). Share what you know.
What resources are available to your team(s)?Clarify what’s available for folks, from time off, mental health days, medical leave, to employee resources, or leave for participating in protests.
When messaging teams of managers, include resources for them on how to support their teams during this time and how you’re going to support them.
What can your team(s) do?Many people want to either learn more information or help in any way, if possible. Share some resources like a trustworthy source of information on the situation, organisations to donate to. This may not be part of your first messages as it can take some time to research.
Where can your team(s) ask questions?Are you setting up a special Slack/Teams channel or doc? There can be cases where different groups need different types of information; help people find the right place for them.
Where are updates going to land, and how often?This part is important. Establish a communication cadence and stick with it. Avoid vague statements “we will let you know once we know more” and instead use something that adds predictability: “I will check in with you again [an appropriate time, depending on the event]”.
Closing wordsAdd something that feels authentic to you and your team and your relationship with them. This can be a helpful way to e.g. remind people that you’re there for them if they need you, or just connect with them in a meaningful way.
Communication template for crisis communication to teams and organisations

Before you hit send,

  • Review: How is this going to land? What questions will this raise for people? What reactions, questions, concerns is this going to evoke? Is this aligned with my values as a leader, and our values as an organisation? — Address as many of these as possible. 
  • Get a second opinion: Ask someone you trust (your manager, a peer, or someone on your team) to review the content. 

Working with your leadership team & addressing structural needs

I believe that as leaders, our role always encompasses creating an environment where people and teams can thrive, which also means ensuring the right structures are in place. This means not just focusing on our direct team(s), but ensuring that larger, structural questions are taken care of. That’s often given in larger companies, but especially in smaller teams, some of these areas may not be covered yet, and in service of your team(s), it can be worth checking in:

Depending on your role, you may have more or less influence on the company’s crisis response as well as on how policy and procedures are defined. I want to share some things I’ve found important over the years in this section. Even if these areas don’t fall within your direct responsibility, you may be able to check in with your manager, advocate, or influence to ensure these important areas are taken care of:

  • Clear point persons in place for answering employee questions. This should be a small, dedicated group of people who respond regularly in the predefined channels.
  • Coordination of customer response: Depending on your area of work, customers may be impacted in some ways by what’s going on, or may have questions about how your business is doing and/or responding. Make sure that customers are taken care of together with your fellow leaders.
  • Higher-level leadership response: Are there plans in place for the CEO to comment on the issue? If not, can they speak out? — If you can, also share with your leadership team what concerns or questions you’re hearing from your teams, this can be helpful for higher-level leaders to ensure they’re addressing these points and speak to what matters to people. 
  • Benefits, policies, procedures in place that address everyone’s needs: Over the last years, there have been many events that directly affected members of underrepresented groups in our industry. Changes that threaten access to healthcare or directly attack people’s identities are scary and can be deeply traumatising. Companies can help people access resources, especially in countries like the U.S. where a lot of these resources are tied to employment. Check what resources are available (e.g. in health care and benefits for trans people, mental health resources and therapy, bereavement leave, leave for parents when their children are unwell, leave to attend protests, and more). Make sure everyone in your team knows about what’s available. If they’re not available, check what can be changed to support people more effectively.
  • Company offering donation-matching. Can your company set up a fund and match donations to some organisations?
  • After the events: Conduct a crisis response review. As a leadership team, review your response. You may use the regular incident review process that’s used in your organisation, or a tool like the after-action review (AAR; PDF download link) process. Learn from this situation as much as possible to improve your preparedness for the future.

Times of crisis can be really difficult for everyone, especially when they’re seemingly endless, and when they’re affecting us or the people we care about directly. I hope this post provides some orientation and helps you utilise your role as a leader or manager to show up for your team in difficult times, and support your organisation in creating systems that support everyone in your team(s).

If this is a topic you’d like to learn more about: I’m going to hold a workshop about “Becoming a successful change leader” at LeadDev London 2022. In this workshop, we’ll explore how to be more intentional when leading and managing through change. You’ll get to know practical, tried tools and techniques to help you and your teams succeed in driving and responding to change. We’ll examine how to react to change and support your teams, and how you as an individual can be a change leader.

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