How to Emotionally Manage Your Team During Emergencies

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
manager giving guidance to his team

While what constitutes an “emergency” may vary from person to person, for small business owners, recent events surely qualify as a workplace emergency.

For example, the National Restaurant Association estimates overall sales will decline by $225 billion over the next three months, and that 5 to 7 million jobs will be lost.

Any business where people tend to go or gather has already been impacted. The same is true for those who provide in-home services; two of my neighbors have put off home renovation projects. 

For a small business owner without significant cash reserves, the result is, in effect, a workplace emergency—one that requires managing the resulting stress and emotions for both yourself and your team.

The key is to address the situation, whether COVID-19 or other workplace emergencies that may occur in the future, in both practical terms and a broader sense. Communicate proactively, deal with rumors and uncertainty, and don’t ignore the emotional factor that comes with challenging times.

Here’s a two-stage process for rising to that occasion. The first focuses on you, the next on leading your employees through the crisis.

Lead yourself

How can you get past the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear and effectively manage a workplace emergency?

The first step is to think hard about your concerns. 

1. Write down everything you’re worried about.

I’ve mentioned “Getting Things Done” author David Allen’s wisdom before, but it bears repeating: “Nothing changes when you write things down except how you engaged with your issues… Without exception, you will feel better if you get stuff out of your head.”

List out potential problems, concerns, and outcomes.

You might discover things are worse than you thought—but that’s okay because now you’ll be able to determine ways to make things better.

Instead of passively worrying, you’ll be able to actively problem-solve.

2. Next, break your list into categories.

That’s what Tim Ferriss does whenever he’s afraid or uncertain. He writes down the problem, then breaks it into three categories:

  • Define: Whether it’s 10, 20, or 30—list however many possible worst outcomes you can think of.
  • Prevent: Next, think through what you could do to prevent each possible worst outcome.
  • Repair: Finally, think of what you can do if you can’t prevent one or more possible worst outcomes.

The key is to decide ahead of time what you’ll do if you’re unable to overcome challenges. 

3. Create a plan.

The result is a plan. Sure, it may change a few times along the way. But that’s okay.

You’ve turned a vague fear of the unknown into a conscious, rational assessment of possible outcomes—plus a plan of action for dealing with those outcomes. At the very least, you will have applied some structure to an extremely ambiguous situation.

This allows you to then communicate effectively with your employees and start to manage their concerns, anxieties, and fears.

Lead your employees

Now let’s focus on helping your employees not only deal with operational issues, but also some of the emotional issues that can result from a workplace emergency. Here are some steps you can follow:

1. Help your team feel safe.

This is crucial where health is concerned. In a pandemic situation, some employees may feel they are putting their health at risk by coming to work. While you may not be able to allay their fears completely, you can describe the steps you’ll take to make the workplace as safe as possible.

For example, in light of COVID-19, you can:

  • Educate employees about public health guidance and how you’re complying
  • Schedule more frequent, thorough cleanings
  • Provide greater access to personal and workplace cleanliness supplies
  • Compartmentalize work functions
  • If possible, let your team work from home to create greater social distance

The key is to acknowledge your team’s concerns and explain what you can and cannot do. While you can’t make people come to work, you can make them feel more comfortable about coming to work.

And then allow them to make their own decision.

2. Be brutally—yet empathetically—honest.

One way is to take a page from the Jeff Bezos playbook. Here’s what Bezos wrote to hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees:

“This isn’t business as usual, and it’s a time of great stress and uncertainty. It’s also a moment in time when the work we’re doing is its most critical.”

Bezos is brief and to the point. The result is a mixture of honesty and empathy. Things will change. Change is hard. But change has to happen; there’s no sense pretending otherwise.

3. Reinforce your “why.”

As Simon Sinek says, every great business is built on why: your mission, what you care about, the difference you make.

Reinforce your why. Share why customers, partners, suppliers, and vendors depend on your business—why what your team does every day matters.

Use that as a springboard for stating your commitment to do everything in your power to get through the difficult times ahead.

4. Set new expectations.

Here’s when you shift to operational thinking. Communicate overall changes in work hours, shifts, job duties, etc. 

If certain people can work from home, explain why and how. If certain people need to shift to different job functions, again, explain why and how. If certain people will face a reduction in hours or even be laid off, make sure you communicate why individually.

The key is to always detail not only what will change, but the reasons those things will change. During an emergency, purpose matters more than ever. It’s impossible to buy into a change when you don’t understand where the change is coming from or the context that led up to it.

While a natural sense of urgency will tempt you to cut explanations short, don’t. The time you invest up front to lay the groundwork for the coming days and weeks will more than pay off. 

5. Give employees greater authority and control.

Workplace emergencies naturally create stress. Research shows stress levels increase even more when people face heavy demands while also feeling they have little control.

In other words, when you’re working harder than usual, facing a time crunch, or experiencing heightened pressure, feeling like you have little authority over your situation ratchets your stress levels even higher.

While you may not be able to reduce the workload or time pressure your employees face, you can give them the authority to handle those demands. 

One solution is to set guidelines within which your employees can function, and then trust them to make good decisions within those parameters. Whether it’s expedited shipping, percentage discounts, or creative timelines, create a framework, assign authority, and only expect employees to ask for approval if they feel they need to exceed the parameters you’ve set.

Not only will your employees feel more engaged and empowered, they’ll also experience less stress.

6. Speak with certain employees one-on-one.

If you’re cutting all employees by 20%, by all means, address your team as a whole. 

But if certain employees will be affected differently, have those discussions with each person in private. If Joe’s role has been impacted and he will be laid off, talk to Joe privately. If you’ve decided to cut your and a senior employee’s pay by 10%, speak to them personally. Whenever one individual is affected differently than others, talk to that person in person.

While it won’t be fun, doing so gives the employee the chance to vent, share frustrations, and ask questions. It also allows you to respond in an empathetic, emotionally intelligent way.

That’s something every employee deserves from you.

7. Address any elephants in the room.

If you’re not sure the changes you make will be sufficient to weather the current storm, say so. If you think more changes might follow, give your team a heads up. If you think there’s a genuine threat to your business’s survival, don’t hide it. 

Fear and uncertainty can be motivating, but more often they’re just distracting. If you don’t work to clarify the situation, others may try to fill the void. Rumors blossom in ambiguity.

Don’t leave your employees wondering. If you don’t have all the answers, be honest about that.

But always say what you do know. And be willing to admit what might be necessary, as well as what situations could cause those actions to be necessary.

For example, say you’re cutting work hours by 10% and an employee asks if further cuts might be necessary. 

Your response could be, “I certainly hope not. But quite frankly, if our revenue drops by another 20%, then yes, we might have to reduce hours even more. That’s why I’m going to do everything I can to service our existing customers and find new customers—and if you have any ideas, please come to me.”

While that may not be what your employees want to hear, that’s what they need to hear. 

8. Make sure everyone knows they can speak with you individually.

Yes, you’re busy. Yes, you have a business to run, and possibly save. But some of your employees, even if they’re not materially affected by changes, will still want to talk. They’ll want to express their concerns, share their fears, or seek reassurance.

Let them.

And don’t try to “solve” every problem or concern. Sometimes all people need, especially during a crisis, is to be heard.

No matter how busy you are, it’s your job to listen.

9. Clearly state your commitment.

Reinforce the fact that you’re worried about the same things as your employees, both professionally and personally. Commit to focusing your time, thoughts, and actions on dealing with the emergency your business currently faces.

Don’t be afraid to let a little emotion show. Be professional, yet also be human. While professionalism is admirable, professionalism mixed with a touch of humanity is inspiring.

Whatever emergency your business might face, you’re all in it together. 

But your employees will not truly care about the future of your business unless you first show you genuinely care about them.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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