Articles

Is It Better To Manage Or Lead In A Crisis?

August 03, 2020 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology, Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

People trust those who care about them. But people also trust those who trust them, which suggests that the more managers empower their people in a crisis the more they are trusted. Or are they?

In a crisis the natural instinctive response of those in authority is to take back control. They assume the situation calls for strong, centralised dictate and believe that they are best placed to determine priorities, make smart trade-offs and decide what to do. They think that their people are looking to them to provide direction, to steer the ship through stormy waters. They feel honour-bound to swoop in and save the day.

And they are not entirely wrong. In times of crisis people want those in charge to do just that, take charge. If that means they have to give back some decision-making authority, so be it. It is a small price to pay to gain the security and  “they” will decide what is best and find a solution in the face of the disaster.

People are looking for a saviour and senior management will generally want to be the saviour their people are looking for.

But at the end of the day, the price to pay for taking back control is simply too high. Taking back control often produces poorer decisions because they are being made by those removed from the action, a drop in motivation and commitment because people now feel their decisions no longer matter, and the demise of initiative and creativity. Taking back control also robs people of opportunities to prove their trustworthiness, breeds dependency and over time even resistance  to centralised control. Managers will be playing the game rather than watching it and lose perspective as a result. They may exhaust themselves to the point where they are no longer useful to their people.

Ironically though a crisis can actually give rise to empowerment – but by default rather than design. People get to make decisions because managers are absent or too busy doing to control. Tedious bureaucracy, including onerous reporting, falls away because there is just no time for it in a crisis. Consequently projects get done within a fraction of the time. More importantly, for the first time in a long time, the value of those on the frontline is appreciated . The focus shifts to giving those most critical to the organization what they need to deliver; productivity soars as a result.

Although it is difficult, scary and counter-intuitive, managers should deliberately choose empowerment over control in a crisis. If they don’t their default position will be to revert to control.

While policy and strategy decisions should stay at the top, execution should be pushed as far down the line as possible. Senior managers should resist the temptation to leap in and do, and rather empower their managers to empower their people to do. They should proactively seek opportunities in the crisis to give people increased or new responsibilities in order to accelerate their growth.

Once the crisis is over, authority handed over in the crisis should not be taken back. Similarly, the controls and reporting requirements that were there before the crisis should not all be resurrected. Managers should be as decisive post the crisis as they were in the crisis. They should trust their capability to make good decisions without the reams of information they previously thought they needed to do so.

In answer to the question, “is it better to manage or lead in a crisis?” – it is better to lead by a long chalk. It is better to lead than manage because there is much more to be gained than lost by doing so.  The gains in employee initiative, creativity, commitment, and motivation which empowerment brings, will outweigh the loss of predictable outcomes and fall sense of being in control.

Wendy Lambourne
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