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In recent years – especially since the pandemic – helping team members overcome crises has become a key responsibility for managers.Ridofranz/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Historically, managers have been chosen, trained and evaluated for their ability to achieve business goals, but in recent years – especially since the pandemic – helping team members overcome crises has become a key responsibility.

Expectations of leaders have been evolving towards more interpersonal skills for nearly two decades, says Patricia Hewlin, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.

“There’s been a call for that kind of leadership for quite a long time,” Dr. Hewlin says. “Employees want to know that they work with leaders who care – not just about the work they do, but who they are as individuals – and the pandemic just magnified that.”

She explains that, in the past, leaders sought to keep personal needs and challenges separate from the business. More recently, however, there has been a broader acceptance that the two go hand-in-hand and that teams will ultimately be more successful if leaders support staff through emotionally challenging circumstances.

“It’s important to normalize crises because crises will occur one way or another, and they can range from losing a client to the death of a colleague to layoffs,” Dr. Hewlin says. “These are all part of leading an organization, and so embracing the crisis as an opportunity to learn, to reveal what’s working and what’s not, is a really important step.”

In a crisis, Dr. Hewlin says leaders should seek to maintain open lines of communication, demonstrate empathy, seek collaborative solutions and know how and when to seek additional resources. She says the worst thing leaders can do is try to put a positive spin on the situation or find a silver lining, which can make staff feel like their concerns aren’t being taken seriously.

“I’ve heard of situations where leaders will frame a layoff as being good for the company; however, you have employees who are losing colleagues and friends, and that needs to be acknowledged,” she says. “Definitely do not frame the crisis as a positive situation because that completely ignores what is happening in reality.”

Leaders should instead acknowledge the challenges that team members are facing, experts say, and be as open and transparent with them as possible.

“Communicate, even when there isn’t anything to communicate,” says Naz Kullar, the director of people and culture at Trotman Auto Group and vice chair of Chartered Professionals In Human Resources (CPHR) Canada. “The transparency and authenticity lend themselves to people trusting in you and listening to you.”

Ms. Kullar says leaders often feel the need to demonstrate strength in the face of adversity but, in a crisis, staff would prefer to be met with empathy and transparency. She emphasizes that it’s okay not to have all the answers and to communicate what is and isn’t known about a crisis as it’s unfolding.

“If you don’t [communicate], people will start to make up their own stories and their own conclusions, which are invariably all wrong,” she says. “It’s about being authentic and saying we don’t have all the answers either, but I am doing what I can to figure this out.”

Rather than trying to manage a crisis alone, leaders should strive to open a dialogue with their team members and seek a collaborative approach to overcoming difficult situations.

“The manager’s role is not necessarily to solve the problem itself, but to bring the team together to work together to come up with solutions that work for everybody,” says Jodi Evans, the B.C. regional managing partner for Deloitte Canada. “When you try to have all the answers, it can create problems. There’s more respect for managers who say, ‘I don’t know, I’ll do my best, but I really don’t know, so let’s work on this together.’”

She says strong leaders also have a keen sense of their limitations. So, when facing a crisis, they know how much they can handle on their own and which resources they can draw on for further assistance when needed.

“Not every manager is going to be an expert, so they need to know who to reach out to,” Ms. Evans says. “There’s also a point where people need to go to a professional; managers and HR people aren’t trained in dealing with really complex situations, and sometimes a psychologist or a councillor should come into play.”

By knowing their limitations, being as transparent as possible, working collaboratively with team members and seeking outside help when necessary, managers can turn a tragedy into an opportunity for the team to grow together, Ms. Evans says.

“It can do the opposite,” she adds. “But if you go through it in a way that is supportive and with a genuinely helpful mindset, it can bring a team closer.”