In just a few short weeks the general population went from having an awareness of the threat COVID-19 (coronavirus illness) had on their lives to being faced with possible shelter-in-place orders. When so much has changed in such a short period of time, it becomes hard to remember what “normal” business/life looked like even a few weeks ago. Even now, I’m having a hard time remembering what the most immediate stressors were in my own role a few weeks ago.
But memory recall during a crisis is a fascinating aspect of our complex brain functioning that shouldn’t be ignored. While you likely can’t remember what your most pressing business issue was in February, you likely can recall the actions your organizations took in the hours/days after the attacks on 9/11. Why is it that we struggle to recall the details of a meeting held just a few hours ago, but we can share in great detail something that happened 19 years ago? Fear. Memory recall from events that were stressful or invoked fear is much stronger than normal memory recall. This is why we’re able to remember much more robust details like what we were wearing and who we were with when a stressful event happened.
How does this affect your role as a leader?
When the coronavirus crisis is over, your employees will have much stronger recall about the actions you and your company took during this stressful time, and it will influence their overall perception of the organization. While many industries are being disrupted, layoffs and hiring freeze actions are being reported widely. Organizations are making tough decisions to protect the long-terms stability of the business, which is certainly necessary. What people will remember is how those decisions made them feel. Did they trust the communications coming from leaders? Did they feel the leaders were taking necessary actions to keep them safe? Did they feel like the decisions being made were delivered in a caring and humane way?
While your employees may not be looking for a new job right now, when the coronavirus threat is over and companies resume hiring, the ones who lost trust through the crisis will be the first to leave. They will remember how they were treated. They will remember how their colleagues were treated.
The actions you take now, and the way you communicate them will be your retention/turnover problem 6 months from now if you handle the situation poorly. All of the leadership tips may sound a bit like a broken record right now, but the fundamentals matter. Check in on your people. Ask them how they’re coping. Listen actively. Show you care through your actions. Be as open and transparent as possible in your communications. And when you have to make decisions that affect the livelihood of your employees, do so with all of the compassion you’d hope someone would show you if the situation were reversed.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou