Developmental Psychology, Performance Psychology, Psychology

Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly! (Buckminster Fuller)

Since time began there have been major crises. Pandemics, flooding, famine, terrorist attacks – we cannot be certain when they will happen, only that they will. 

During a crisis, cognitive overload looms; information is incomplete, interests and priorities may clash, and emotions and anxieties run high. Analysis paralysis can easily result, exacerbated by the natural tendency of matrixed organizations to build consensus. Leaders must break through the inertia to keep the organization trained on business continuity today while increasing the odds of mid- to long-term success by focusing on the few things that matter most.

Containing & Holding during a crisis

When a leader’s appeal rests on a vision alone, leadership is not whole. And the limitations of such visionary leadership become painfully obvious in times of crisis, uncertainty, or radical change. Take the coronavirus pandemic. No one had anything like it in their “Vision 2020.” Crises always test visions, and most don’t survive. Because when there’s a fire in a factory, a sudden drop in revenues, a natural disaster, we don’t need a call to action. We are already motivated to move, but we often flail. What we need is a type of containing and holding, so that we can move purposefully.

Containing refers to the ability to soothe distress and interpreting to the ability to help others make sense of a confusing predicament. A leader is Holding when he/she reassures employees that the company has the resources to weather the storm and most jobs will be protected, helps them interpret revenue data, and gives clear directions about what must be done. Good holding, in short, not only makes us more comfortable and courageous. It makes us.

While containing and holding may sound obscure, they can be consciously applied through demonstrated actions and behaviours.

Systems Thinking during a crisis

We know that a crisis becomes more complex for a number of reasons. Decisions need to be made quickly; many people have to work together, often for the first time; high levels of uncertainty and stress; and too much or too little information (or false information) all add complexity. 

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Systems thinking requires a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected. We talk about interconnectedness not in a spiritual way, but in a biological sciences way.


All systems are dynamic and often complex; thus, we need a more holistic approach to understanding phenomena. Synthesis is about understanding the whole and the parts at the same time, along with the relationships and the connections that make up the dynamics of the whole.


Emergence is the outcome of the synergies of the parts; it is about non-linearity and self-organization and we often use the term ‘emergence’ to describe the outcome of things interacting together.

Feedback Loops

Since everything is interconnected, there are constant feedback loops and flows between elements of a system. We can observe, understand, and intervene in feedback loops once we understand their type and dynamics.

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Leadership Behaviours during a crisis

  1. Decide with speed over precision – Define priorities, make smart trade-offs, embrace action and don’t punish failures
  2. Adapt boldly – Decide what not to do, adjust quickly and strengthen direct connections with frontline
  3. Reliably deliver – Stay aligned on daily priorities, measure performance, keep mind and body in fighting shape and engage in self-care
  4. Engage for impact – Connect with individual team members, do not act without team input and collect and amplify positive messages

Influencing during a crisis

We’ve known for a long time that our assumptions, emotions, world views, and paradigms influence our behaviour. The latest research in neuroscience tells us that our neurobiology is what drives our behaviour and defines how we, as leaders, make meaning, solve problems, and carry out tasks with others.

Leading thought leader in world of human performance, David Rock, developed SCARF model to illuminate two key biological foundations that underpin how humans relate to each other and themselves –

  1. Social behavior is governed by the principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward
  2. Social needs are treated in the brain in much of the same way as our need for food and water

The SCARF model summaries these two themes within a framework that captures the common factors that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations.

  • Status is about where you are in relation to others around you
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe
  • Fairness is a perception of impartial and just exchanges between people

People never forget how managers treated them when they were facing loss. And we will remember how our institutions, managers, and peers, held us through this crisis — or failed to. We also see the consequences of past failures of holding, in those institutions struggling to mobilize an already depleted pool of resources. It is tempting to resort to command and control in a crisis, but it is leaders who hold instead that help us work through it.  And it is to those leaders, I believe, that we’ll turn to when time comes to articulate a vision for the future.

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