professional woman looking out window
Showing empathy and ensuring communication are two top ways that business leaders can keep employees calm and connected through a crisis. — Getty Images/damircudic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been unique in its massive reach and impact globally. However, there is one thing it has in common with every other crisis: the need for strong leadership.

No matter the nature of a crisis, the No. 1 priority for business leaders is to allay fear and panic, said Tim O’Brien, founder and owner of O’Brien Communications.

"You can’t accomplish anything if people are letting their emotions drive their perceptions and decision-making," O'Brien told CO—. "At the same time, management cannot sugarcoat the realities and challenges associated with the situation. It's a balance that good leaders know how to achieve."

As a leader, you've probably already endured that initial wave of panic and concern among your employees and customers. Now, you must maintain a steady flow of communications to reassure your internal and external audiences throughout the pandemic.

[Read: Coronavirus Best Practices for Small Businesses]

Making and communicating company decisions during a crisis

In the coming weeks and months, you may need to make tough decisions that will impact your employees and customers. Lily Scanlon, a principal at Korn Ferry, said leaders must balance action with taking the time necessary to thoughtfully review the situation and analyze the information available.

As you're making these company decisions, Scanlon recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is this a temporary or permanent situation?
  • What is the financial and operational reality right now, and what are the related short- and long-term financial and operational implications of my options for next steps?
  • What will it take to get back to "normalcy" as quickly as possible?
  • What will my customers’ and business’ needs be when we do get back to a normal routine?

Once these decisions are made and the potential impact has been assessed, you'll need to communicate it quickly and transparently to your team to avoid gossip and speculation.

"In the absence of information, people will fill the void with what they can cobble together on their own," said Scanlon. "Be transparent about the actions taken and decisions made and why — safety of employees and their loved ones, adjust to changes in the market and customer needs, etc. The information should focus on key priorities."

O'Brien agreed, adding that leadership must deliver a consistent message and be clear about what is and is not within the company's control.

"Senior management has to set the tone and that tone must cascade through the ranks all the way to the front lines," he said. "Control what you can, and … communicate how your organization plans to deal with those factors it cannot control. Be honest and … don't make any promises you can't keep."

[Read: 5 Experts on How to Manage Employees Through Difficult Times]

In the absence of information, people will fill the void with what they can cobble together on their own.

Lily Scanlon, principal, Korn Ferry

Coronavirus Guide for Small Businesses

CO— is working to bring you the best resources and information to help you navigate this challenging time. Read on for our complete coronavirus coverage.

Leading your company through the crisis

Here are a few tips for maintaining a strong, positive leadership front for your company throughout COVID-19 and beyond.

Show empathy

COVID-19 is impacting each of your customers and employees in different ways. The best thing a leader can do is express empathy for their concerns and show how the company is addressing them.

"These are scary times for all and will have a lasting impact on people’s well-being," said Scanlon. "Reiterate … that you know how difficult and scary these times are for everyone, but that you are in this together and know that you will get through this no matter how long this crisis goes on."

Keep a two-way dialogue going

O'Brien emphasized the importance of two-way communication to keep your employees and clients informed every step of the way.

"Don't assume … they know what is going on or likely to happen within your organization," he said. "[Be] prepared to listen. You may hear some things that warrant follow-up. When you do, take note and make sure to follow up promptly, no matter how small the concern or issue."

Similarly, Scanlon recommended listening to your customers to find unique ways to provide value to them and the larger community during the pandemic. As an example, she noted that some companies are shifting their operations to manufacture and donate sanitizing products and personal protective equipment (PPE).

"Don't be afraid to get creative," Scanlon added. "This will build brand loyalty and drive customer engagement in the long run."

[Read: 9 Creative Ways Small Businesses Are Adapting to Coronavirus]

Ask for help

Leaders should remember that they're not in this alone. Your fellow small business leaders are also experiencing many of the same challenges you are, and you may find that you can support each other through this.

"Reach out to your networks and ask for their perspectives," said Scanlon. "They might know of additional resources, share their lessons learned, or at the very least, empathize with you and provide the encouragement we all need to get through these trying times."

Applications are open for the CO—100! Now is your chance to join an exclusive group of outstanding small businesses. Share your story with us — apply today.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.