Sorry, I can’t navigate this crisis for you!

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I’ll start by repeating what we already know.

The world is awash with existential anxiety that floats as infectiously as the virus itself!

We are all concerned with a sometimes niggling, often pounding, message of warning and impending danger. It’s scary and real, and multi-knuckled in its impression on our health. We are all to some extent facing potential waves of physical, emotional, relational, financial and societal pain and wounding.

Yes, we may emerge more resilient, but the fire that forges us will nevertheless burn hot.

Added to this is an immense uncertainty about when this will all come to resolution, and we can get back to living life with unbridled enthusiasm; close, cheek warming hugs and  unrestrained human touch. It’s this open-ended vagueness that triggers further anxiety and our human propensity to expect the worse (which is our evolutionary bias to be as prepared as possible for any threat to our existence).

It’s a dread-filled spiral downwards, and in most cases a completely normal response to the unprecedented nature of this time.

Since this crisis hit, I have been amazed, and quite envious, at the number of colleagues, coaches and facilitators, who have offered themselves as support and care to those who are at the coal face of the danger. I have honestly not felt anywhere near ready to engage with the challenges before me, let alone the trauma and struggle of others. I have on the one hand felt this deep desire to lean in and be available, to above all, just help.  Helping is the signature DNA of my sense of purpose, and so when the call was made to offer my time (which I suddenly had a lot of), I felt drawn, compelled and even obliged to do so.

In truth though, I can only help and be of grounded service to others when I am at ease in my own inner life – and I am still in a deep digestion of what is nutritious and what is poisonous in my own thinking and context. I’ve simply not been ready, and am only finding my emerging strength after a few weeks of reflection and time away from my work.

I must however add, that I am increasingly concerned for all those that flew into helping others so quickly. No doubt many were ready, and thankfully so, but I am worried that there are those that have yet to deal with their own existential malaise, and may in fact have jumped too early to help others, before they have grounded themselves.

Who, after all, will help the helpers when they need it most?

I have also been very vocal about the extent to which helpers have been asked to lean into the complexity of this age and do their work for free (but that is another issue altogether – and has made me quite angry actually).

So what can I offer, as a psychologist to support others? How can I lean on my experience and observations to offer value? and How can I help in ways that are congruent to my reality?

Well, 15 years ago I was involved in a crisis service that responded to people on the edge of psychological or psychiatric collapse. In most cases, the service was a final call for help before a person was about to take their own lives. They were in a brutal fight for survival with themselves. I learned a lot about crisis management, and about the psychological levers that we can all deploy to support those who feel overwhelmed by their context and situation. I lean heavily on the lessons I learned from those occasions when my phone rang at unearthly hours of the night with a voice on the other end desperately seeking support to stay alive.

in these Covid-19 times, many of us will feel deeply, primal desires to fight or flee our way out of this. Others will freeze and become indecisive and stuck. There will even be those that face their own desire to end it all. None of these strategies are particularly useful, and usually compound the harm over time to ourselves and others.

So, what can we do to make this period more productive?

My advice to leaders across the spectrum (from a family to organisational context) is to create space, safety and encouragement and to role-model effective leadership. I will focus my inputs here on leaders, who have the potential to either create frenetic panic or ease-full flow in hundreds, if not thousands of people. Here are my 8 key lessons from supporting and observing people and organisations navigate multiple crisis over my career:

  1. A crisis is THE BIGGEST TEST OF LEADERSHIP there is. In an uncertain world, people naturally turn to the most influential and powerful leaders in their lives.  A leader’s role is thus to provide understanding, consistency, availability, context and as much certainty as possible. A wallflower leader fuels anxiety. This is not the time to outsource or delegate leadership to anyone (especially not to a consultant or coach or the HR department). You have to take this crisis by the scruff of the neck and lean all the way in.
  2. When people are tempted to fight, flee or freeze, a leader must help their people FOCUS! The leader must step into their extroverted energy and take charge with a clear vision of what remains important!
  3. It sometimes helps to give the CRISIS A NAME that lightens the mood and keeps people focused on an aspirational future. Try to avoid catastrophising the situation – don’t become the FOX news anchor of your organisation.
  4. The leader should define 3 FOCUS AREAS (no more than 5!) that are achievable and easy to remember. These should guide people’s daily thinking and actions, and enable focus and belief.
  5. The leader must OVER-COMMUNICATE with their stakeholders – usually daily. Meeting rhythms should ramp up and include more team and individual one-on-ones. The agendas should focus on the aspirational future, the key goals and each person’s fluctuating mental well-being. This is however a time to avoid training, learning and too many ‘outsiders’ in the system.
  6. The leader must do two things exceptionally well – PROVIDE CLARITY THROUGH INFORMATION and LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN & LISTEN. Each conversation with team members and colleagues should help to clarify the plan, and to identify specific needs and experiences that people have and are enduring. Dialing up empathy and resisting the desire to solve the crisis for each person is critical at this time.
  7. A crisis is a powerful FORGER OF A HIGH-PERFORMING TEAM – if navigated skillfully, teams can emerge stronger and sharper than ever. Great leaders build safe and supportive environments where members are encouraged to share their best thinking, lessons and ideas to help tackle the crisis. The seasoned hands will help those that are new to a crisis, and the collaboration and connection will deepen.
  8. Finally, great leaders know when to officially DECLARE THAT A CRISIS IS OVER. This is easier said than done, because the tempo, pace and levels of engagement can become addictive to many. Teams may begin to seem high-performing, but most people are still operating out of anxiety, rather than joy. This is an unsustainable state and will gradually undermine team efficacy. The leader must learn to name and call the crisis done and dusted.

Above all, I wish you time to face this reality, to stare the grey fog deep to its core and to recognise that the nebulous crisis will envelope, but not topple, those that have a sturdy foundation.

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