What managers can learn from positive psychology in a crisis
Co-authored together with Jan Kiel
“Fear is useful, cowardice is not.” Mahatma Gandhi
“Knowing what is right and not doing it is the greatest cowardice.” Confucius
Tens of thousands have died, hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs. The global economy is facing an unprecedented slump. Countries are going into debt at an unkown extent. And we still don’t know what to expect in and after the corona pandemic. This uncertainty creates fear. Leaders in politics, business and society face challenges of a new dimension and must face up to their responsibilities despite fear. This requires strength of character.
Positive psychology has identified 24 strengths of character, which it bundles into the virtues of wisdom, humanity, justice, moderation, transcendence and courage. Courage is the decisive virtue when dealing with crises. But what is courage, how does it arise and how can we use it sensibly in times of crises?
Courage is taking determined action despite fear
Courage is the ability to overcome fear in dangerous situations. Courage, like perseverance, honesty and enthusiasm, is an emotional strength that helps us to achieve goals against external or internal resistance by excercising our own will. Mark Twain defined courage as “resistance to fear, control of fear, not absence of fear.”
But how do we find the right measure to use courage? To this day, the Aristotelian “Doctrine of the Mean” is the ethical guideline. Aristotle sees the correct practice of a virtue between its excess and its lack.
Courage is therefore not about daring or cowardice, but about bravery. Aristotle sees courage as the essential virtue, since the practice of other virtues depends on it. If managers succeed in overcoming their fears, this radiates on the people around them. Courage enables courage, gives orientation and creates confidence. And this is the essential task of managers in crises.
Navigate the crisis with judgment, determination and implementation power
Carl von Clausewitz, military scientist and general of the Prussian army, considered judgment, determination in the “fog of uncertainty” and strategic adaptability to be essential characteristics of the successful general. The crisis-tested German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, following the same logic, required executives to have judgment, determination and implementation.
In a crisis, framework conditions change abruptly, knowledge is incomplete or outdated, emotions cloud analytical clarity. Processing available information quickly, setting clear priorities and making decisive decisions is critical to success. Concentrate on the three to five most important topics. Share this clearly and repeatedly. Correct if necessary but stay on course. Think in scenarios. Establish clear responsibilities. Give your employees the greatest possible freedom to make decisions. Encourage activity and tolerate mistakes. Ensure regular coordination and the possibility of escalation. Go with the dynamics of change. Use internal and external sources of information. Distinguish between important and urgent. Respond to changed framework conditions with changed measures. Share openly what you know and what you don’t know. Keep in touch with key players. Show presence and collect impressions on site.
You cannot influence essential factors. Take responsibility anyway, take up the challenge. Request this from your employees. Strengthen collaboration within and between your teams. Use three to five simple and effective indicators to measure and actively control your most important priorities. Report them up and down regularly. Pay attention to the stability of your employees. The better you support them in overcoming their challenges, the more powerful and resilient your organization will be.
Communication is important. Keep your team up to date on changing framework conditions. Make sure that your employees meet regularly, if necessary by telephone or video conference. Listen, take concerns seriously, report on successes and failures, show the context and the importance of crisis management. Do not despair but dare to show your own weaknesses and accept help. “In times of crisis, people reach for meaning. Sense is strength. Our survival may depend on looking for and finding it. ” (Viktor E. Frankl)
Prepare for the time after the crisis – despite uncertainty
In the short term it is crucial how leaders and companies prove themselves in the crisis. For some it is an opportunity to demonstrate quality, for others it is not. The behavior of a leader in a crisis shows strength of character and potential, but also development needs and limits.
Who needs support after the crisis to fix shortcomings disclosed during the crisis? Who will no longer belong to the inner leadership circle in the future? Which leaders have proven to be particularly reliable and which additional responsibilities should they take on in the future?
Learn from the crisis yourself. What do you want to do differently when you are tested next and how can you prepare for it? When the dust has settled, it will be important to find your way around in the new normal, to anticipate developments at an early stage and to find entrepreneurial answers to new social questions. We can already anticipate some of these questions. How deep will the coming recession be? Does the expected economic V-curve or do we have to expect a flattened L-curve? What impact will this have on political stability? Can tax increases or even property taxes be expected? Will inflation rise sharply despite persistently low interest rates? How will consumers and investors react? What lasting changes in consumer behavior will the experience of the crisis make? How will the value systems of customers, employees and investors change? What does this mean for future product development and marketing? What do the supply chain managers have to learn from the crisis? What role will remote work, business trips and video conferences have in the future? What effects does this have on everyday cooperation, coordination and trust in the company? What does this mean for leadership and hierarchy?
The answers to these questions are still open and will be very different for each company and market segment. It is important to ask the right questions at an early stage and to derive relevant scenarios. The right time for strategic decisions is important. The range of possibilities will initially be very wide. This carries the risk of wrong decisions. Keep close to your customers and follow their signals. Make the most of your company’s market and customer knowledge. Anticipate the most realistic scenarios and prepare yourself for the worst. Check how well prepared you are and what preparations are missing. And actively seek opportunities beyond the crisis. What strengths did your company show during the crisis? How can you use them for new business approaches?
Derive optimism from coping with the crisis and use it to make a fresh start
Taking on new opportunities will take courage again. The courage to make decisions with knowledge of risk and uncertainty, to break new ground and to escape the pressure of conformity. For this, a culture is important that allows one to be different, to think outside the box and to consciously take risks.
Trust in the strengths that your employees have shown in the crisis. Don’t tell them how to do something, but what. Give them the opportunity to face their own challenges. Support your employees in discovering and developing their character strengths. Give them tasks that match these strengths. Question the status quo and encourage your employees to do the same. Ask questions about why and “what if …”. Transfer responsibility. See problems from different angles. Surround yourself with people from different perspectives. Identify brave lateral thinkers and reward their dissenting opinions.
This crisis caught us when we least expected it. But we will survive it. At the same time, it is a great opportunity. A chance to prove ourselves, to use the optimism of the crisis that has been overcome for new beginnings and new activities. Courage is a prerequisite for emergence from crises to be stronger and more confident.
About the authors
Barbara Kearney and Jan Kiel coach, advise and support entrepreneurs, managers and their teams in successfully mastering challenges and increasing their performance. They not only share their love for positive psychology, but also encourage their clients to develop their strength of character and to exercise their own leadership role authentically and powerfully. Benefitting from both their different character strengths themselves, when writing together they describe themselves as Mozart and Beethoven.
Positive psychology, a relatively young, Anglo-Saxon research area of psychology, does not aim to help sick people better, but rather to make healthy people even stronger. Positive psychology has defined 24 globally valid character strengths, which describe the human character through their respective composition and characteristics, bundled into six virtues (www.viacharacter.org)