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Managing fear and uncertainty in a crisis like COVID-19

Mar 25, 2020

In times of unanticipated change, members of an organization are faced with not only the tasks of adapting to and moving past the change, but also the fear and uncertainty that comes with it.

Recently, the coronavirus brought unprecedented levels of change to the world — and every aspect of our lives. 

As businesses and organizations work to navigate the impact of these changes, it is important to understand how humans respond to these significant events.  

Not only can change be unlike anything we have ever experienced; it also results in a world where the future is very much unknown.

With sudden change there is often a period of shock and denial.

This can be about the severity of the problem, the need to change, or even whether anything has occurred at all. With the coronavirus, as we became familiar with terms such as “social distancing” and “flattening the curve,” our emotions may have turned to anger, blame and even apathy.

Human response to change cycle | COVID-19

That cycle is inescapable, but what leaders can influence is how long it takes to get through the apathy valley, where performance bottoms out.

The following four areas can help leaders reduce the fear and anxiety to help move employees through the cycle.

Lead with intent and heart

As a leader being visible, sincere and genuine is essential. In a way, the leader during a time of crisis is the “change sponsor” during the crisis — the person guiding the employees and stakeholders through this. Intentional leadership, being visible to employees and at some level to outside stakeholders (through communications or perhaps video conference calls) is essential. During these times, it is more important to be sincere and genuine than perfectly polished.

Perfection is not required – sincerity is.

Listen, observe and assess

This can be difficult to do in a crisis, however listening and observing can provide a leader with essential input to their decision-making process.

Face to face discussions, focus groups or just quick meetings with employees can provide insight into what they are dealing with and possibly afraid of. When face-to-face is not possible, try to use video conferencing to make a stronger connection than possible with an email.

Listening to the calls received in a call center or incoming communication via other means can provide visibility to what your external stakeholders are experiencing and how to develop a plan to address that. Reaching out to stakeholders based on this input can help deal with fear and uncertainty, perhaps even before they make decisions and take action based on those fears.

Taking time to listen, observe and assess provides a necessary pause, allowing the leaders within the organization time to process the input they are receiving before committing to a course of action. The time to reflect, even if short, is critical to better decision-making.

Be deliberately calm, confident and realistic

In times of crisis, or when dealing with a rapid, unanticipated change, leaders can work to be a source of deliberate calm. A purposeful, calm and reasoned approach can set a tone for meetings and decisions around the unanticipated change.

This does not imply a lack of action; only a lack of frenetic activity.

Realism cannot be overlooked; the employees and stakeholders know there may be tough decisions ahead so be as transparent and straightforward about this as the situation allows. The organization will look to the leader for confidence as well as realism, bring both.

Always take action – we will never be perfect

Action is preferred to inaction, in all cases and especially in times of unanticipated change.

In taking action, focus on what you can control and acknowledge what you cannot control.

Communicate the actions leaders of the organization are taking, even when that action is to research strategic alternatives or monitor events as the develop – communicate that.

Action is an iterative process; This is not a “one and done” process. Be prepared to establish a routine cadence and adjust to fear and uncertainty as the situation changes.

Many organizations wait to communicate anything until they have a perfect message and a perfect strategy in place. This can present an opportunity for misinformation and rumors to spread.  


These two examples show how clear communication can help move employees navigate a crisis.

Communication examples: External communication

Communication examples: External communication | COVID-19

Communication examples: Internal communication

Communication examples: Internal communication | COVID-19

More help

Our Unanticipated Change Response guide walks you through the 6 steps of change. Check out our article, which includes worksheets and samples, to learn how to:

  1. Assemble a team
  2. Assess a situation
  3. Activate agents
  4. Develop a plan
  5. Implement plans
  6. Evaluate and adjust
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Deron J. Kling
Senior Manager
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Jeffrey H. Wulf
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