- IMD Business School

Top teams in the time of crisis: containment and compassion

37 min.
May 2020

In this webinar, Anand Narasimhan, Shell Professor of Global Leadership at IMD and Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, Business Psychologist and Executive Advisor, share their thoughts on the different phases of crisis. They also highlight new qualities we are seeing in team leaders that wouldn’t have become so prominent without this “pandemic stimulus”.

The content of this talk will help you answer two key questions crucial to the flourishing of your top team: What is it we are having to hold together? Whose suffering am I attending to?

Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg has coached in multiple scenarios from pharma and financial CEOs to the navy seals and is the author of “Battle Mind: Performing under pressure”.

She says that crisis typically has three phases, although they don’t always come in this neat sequence: emergency, regression and recovery.

In the emergency phase, as the crisis hits home, energy rises, performance goes up, and almost all top teams find hidden reserves of leadership. Leaders in the emergency phase have been visible and empathetic in the mould of an “embracing parent” for example, in connecting from their couches and home offices by video to the frontline.

The regression phase is characterized by boredom and fatigue. Problems become complex, decisions take longer and the energizing emergency phase becomes a distant memory. “The varnish cracks, fuses are short,” she summarizes.

“Right now, most leaders find themselves in the middle of the regression phase. They are struggling to pull their team and themselves out,” Dr Wedell-Wedellsborg observes.

The leader has to get people out of this phase, quickly and constructively.

It’s also a time when those who step up get influence and respect, and those who are unable to get exposed. As Wedell-Wedellsborg puts it, “Right or wrong, fair or unfair; in a crisis, things become black and white. You’re either with us or against us. It’s compassion with consequence.”

Professor Anand adds that regression is where we see our world in terms of heroes and villains: “The quality of compassion is the more strained.”

Indeed, compassion is one of two new qualities are we seeing in top teams as a result of the COVID crisis, be it in the context of concerns over people’s health and wellbeing or more a sense of compassion for the overall performance of the team. The other is containment.

Professor Anand describes containment as the ability to “observe and absorb what is going on around you, but to provide a sense of stability” too. It is a case of simultaneously reducing the damage – “stopping the overflow of water” – and holding together the fears and uncertainties.

Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg shares anecdotes on containment strategies that have been deployed by her clients, at times involving a disintegration and reintegration of the team.

She says you can call it “strict parenting” and that it is a way to “release energy by resetting the team structure and assigning new responsibilities to team members, cross-cutting red tape and rigid role definitions.”

Finally, during regression, empathy is replaced by a hard-nosed view of who is going to help. Professor Anand equates it to either having a child with talent and pushing them or having a child who is difficult or withdrawn and giving them space.

Then comes the recovery phase during which the leader spearheads the discovery of the new world. As Dr Wedell-Wedellsborg says, “things have changed now.” It’s time to move on, the speakers agree, with “realistic optimism” to another kind of normal.

Having a clarify of purpose becomes key, with Professor Narasimhan warning how “in the recovery phase, if you’re not able to repurpose and find meaning it becomes a destructive spiral.”

To this Dr Wedell-Wedellsborg adds: “Meaningless is the biggest drain on resilience and recovery. If you feel what you are doing is pointless, you will become disillusioned.”

She continues: “One of the hard things about corona is that there is no liberation day when this is gone and done with. Talk about what’s going to happen in a year from now. Be realistic. And find new meaning.”

The takeaways from this webinar are overwhelmingly positive, with Dr Wedell-Wedellsborg reminding us that “crisis gives birth to leaders”. But becoming that leader involves a lot more than being a gregarious firefighter exhibiting the concern of a worried parent in the emergency phase.

To view all webinars, please visit our Leading in Turbulent Times page here.


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