Andrew Day
22 May, 2020

Covid-19 is a global crisis. The nature of which we have not previously encountered. We are all trying to make sense of what is happening, what it means to us and how to respond. No single person can see the full picture (if indeed this exists or is possible). We can only make sense of what it means to us through talking with others.

In a crisis, our means of understanding events are disrupted. Unexpected and unknown changes require us to revise our assumptions and interpretation of events. What we expect to happen, doesn’t. What we think will work, proves to be ineffective. Life suddenly becomes very uncertain and whatever we do, feels risky. This leaves us feeling disoriented, confused and frightened. Disruption also means change; and change involves loss. Both real and imagined. These losses may be tangible and clear. They may equally not be immediately apparent or obvious, only emerging when we expect something and find it’s not there.

When a situation changes beyond recognition, we have to act without an established theory or explanation to guide our response. In a crisis, the risk is however to move too quickly to conclusions and action. We know from studies of major accidents, such as the meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island or the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, that taking the time to question your assumptions or anticipate what might happen can be the difference between a crisis and a disaster.

Some form of action however may be required to determine what is the situation. We need therefore to both act and reflect-on-action to discern patterns and see connections between events. We also need to innovate to respond to novel and emerging challenges. This calls on our capacity to be creative and to imagine new possibilities or alternative futures.

Sensemaking is however challenged by anxiety. Not knowing, having to learn something anew or having to go through a period of feeling incompetent, all trigger anxiety. One response is to reduce our anxiety by simplifying what is happening and creating false certainties. Another is to avoid or deny ‘the realities’ of the situation. Leadership in a crisis involves containing other’s anxieties, so they engage with what is actually happening and take reasoned actions. This requires the creation of an environment in which individuals can be vulnerable and minimises fears of being judged, shamed or feeling incompetent.

What can I do?

In a crisis, the role of leadership is therefore less about providing solutions and more about facilitating mature and critical reflection on what is happening and what can be done.  The following is a practical list of ways you can do this:

> Take time to stand back, on your own and with others, to notice patterns and to see the wider picture.

> Frame decisions and actions in the context of the central challenges facing your organisation so they are intelligible and coherent for those affected. Be open about your assumptions and intentions.

> Share data, information and your perspective about what is happening at a global, national and local level and the implications that you see for your part of the organisation.

> Talk with your teams about what is happening, encourage them to talk with each other, notice what is happening and to share information freely and regularly with each other.

> Create time with your peers and teams to pause and reflect on what is going on, particularly when you feel under pressure and notice the pull to act.

> Create space for people to express their emotions and feelings about what is happening. For instance, by holding a short de-brief at the end of the week.

> Connect with people who might have a different perspective or view point to explore their experience, what they are see, experiencing and learning.

> Experiment, try things out and evaluate what works in practice. Notice what happens, particularly when your assumptions are challenged or brought into question.

If you want help with facilitating sensemaking process then please reach out, we want to help.

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