The Resilient Mind Series 01

Leadership communication: remember to put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others!



In the business sector, the term VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) has been used for some time now to describe the increasingly unpredictable situation in our business and financial world. With the current exponential spread of the coronavirus and the many response measures that have been ordered by the authorities, in a somewhat less than co-ordinated manner, we are now experiencing an unprecedented acceleration of VUCA. This pandemic is placing an enormous burden on all of us, both as individuals, as a society, and as economic players. The airline industry is used to deal with unpredictable scenarios – so what can we learn from their experience? Every time you board an airplane, the message is always the same: “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down from the panel above your head. Place the mask over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. If you are travelling with a child or someone less able than yourself, put on your own mask first before assisting others.”

This is a sound rule developed to cope with a crisis situation – and perhaps we should also apply it to the economic crisis. What exactly, you may ask, do we mean by that? Collective fear of COVID-19 is spreading through our communities much more rapidly than the virus itself, and represents an even greater threat to our economies. Our workforce can hardly be expected to remain productive when they are in the grip of fear and panic. Many of us are falling victim to our biologically programmed “fight, flight or freeze” response, or to a phenomenon known as the “Amygdala hijack”. This is what happens when the cognitive areas of our brain are taken over by an emotional response triggered by the part of our brain that is wired for survival. This emotional response is immediate, overwhelming and completely out of proportion to the actual stimulus.

As leaders, what can we do to effectively combat this “fear virus”?

  • Get your employees involved: you can harness the enormous creative potential that lies in your employees by giving them more responsibility, for example letting them work in virtual teams to develop their own solutions.
  • Regulating your own emotions: This is critical when it comes to remaining calm and acting as a role model during a crisis. You need to put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others. So how do we actually do that in the situation we are currently facing? As a leader, the first thing you have to do is to ensure that you are well-grounded and composed yourself. A good way to check this is to monitor your breathing – are you breathing calmly and consciously? This is an important factor for good communication, because after all, the words you speak are only a small part of the message you convey. Even more important is your general demeanor, and the emotion that accompanies your words. Because your employees will be asking themselves: Is the feeling I am getting from my boss consistent with what he or she is saying to me? As listeners, if we sense this kind of discrepancy, then we tend to instinctively believe in the emotions that are subconsciously conveyed by the speaker, rather than the spoken message. This means that if I’m feeling stressed out myself, as a leader, my first task is to regulate my own emotions so that I can remain calm and convey this sense of calmness to others. Doing simple breathing exercises, just like a singer before a performance, can be a helpful way to bring your mood and emotions back to normal.
  • Be empathetic: Don’t just describe your employees’ situation, share it emotionally and reflect it. Many of your employees will never have faced anything like this before. They are likely to be stressed, and in immediate need of someone who understands and acknowledges this. Showing empathy while at the same time demonstrating confidence (from the Latin con fides, i.e. with trust) is the hallmark of a true leader.
  • Communicate using clear and simple images: Don’t be afraid to call things by their name, and to give a clear and realistic picture of what is expected. To go back to our airplane metaphor: If the aircraft unexpectedly encounters turbulence, it is more difficult for the captain to explain this in a calming way at the critical moment from the cockpit. However, if the captain gives the passengers some advance warning, and if the flight attendants remain calm and continue with their regular duties in the cabin, then we experience the turbulence as something that is expected and that we are able to understand and process. In other words, it’s all about anticipating and addressing possible developments, suggesting possible approaches for dealing with the challenges, or putting together working groups to analyze the situation and come up with a plan.
  • And, last but not least: give your employees an anchor point, something they can hold on to.Most companies have formulated a vision, a purpose and associated values. In times of crisis, the reality of our workplace culture is more important than ever. As a leader, it’s important to convey a positive outlook, even if we’re expecting the turmoil to get worse in the coming weeks. For good communication it is essential that the management team clarifies any remaining uncertainties, recognizes and addresses the upcoming challenges, and also acknowledges the role of the employees and their contribution to the overall response to the crisis. Maintaining an authentic dialog and listening with empathy can help alleviate stress, while also enabling management to keep up a good relationship with the employees. If applied regularly, good communication acts as a vaccine against the fear virus. A community that is united by a common vision can overcome a crisis.

If you would like more advice about this, get in touch with the aergon team. We’ll be happy to talk to you (online)!
This article is part of the Resilient Mind Series from