Coronavirus layoffs surge across the US, overwhelming marketing leaders on how to proceed in the face of uncertainty. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently published a story entitled, “The Coronavirus Doesn’t Have To Equal Layoffs” sharing tips on how to lead compassionately amid coronavirus. We spoke with executive coach and founder of MER Leadership Design Marie Elena Rigo about how to apply these best practices in the real world. With over 25 years of experience as a leadership and executive coach, Marie Elena sees the HBR article as an opportunity to embrace a growth mindset. Here she shares recommendations on how leaders can thoughtfully navigate layoffs, if need be, and maintain open communication with employees.

The HBR article says, “those who manage the economic effects of this crisis in a clear and compassionate way create more value for their companies and will come out of this pandemic stronger than ever before.” What’s the first step leaders should take to achieve this?

As an executive coach, I see this as an article on leadership and an opportunity to embrace a Growth Mindset. Be intentional—responding versus reacting means slowing down enough to make sure you are making decisions from the rational part of your brain (prefrontal cortex) versus the area that holds fear (amygdala). It’s critical for leaders to recognize their “responsibility” as Steven Covey defines it: ability to respond. Reflexive actions can mean rash decisions and in an ever-changing landscape like the one we are in, what you think you know today will be different tomorrow.

How To Lead Compassionately In The Time Of Coronavirus
Courtesy of Marie Elena

The article also says higher management should consider crowdsourcing with employees. What’s the best way to go about this?

Yes, ask staff about their ideas and create a clear container for the feedback. Give them available options and ask if there are others they would like the company to consider.  Then, once agreed upon by senior leadership, give them a choice (if this is possible). This creates a sense of control and empowers them to choose what is best for them in their situation—versus having something “done to them.”

What are some ways leaders can compassionately manage the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis?

Be transparent: Sharing higher-level financials and relevant information about areas of the company that might be affected will help employees process real information versus creating their own version of the truth—which often results in a negative future fantasy, one more dire than the real information. Additionally, lead by example: If the company is cutting costs and cutting staff, leaders should be the first to reduce their compensation. It’s important that the ratio is higher for more senior-level employees because it’s a percentage of their salary. Stepping up in this way shows staff that leaders are not immune and are willing to weather the storm with others.

How should companies approach layoffs if they must make them?

Be clear, kind and definitive. Be willing to be vulnerable and show your human side. That’s a big part of empathy. If you must do layoffs, HR will provide the words. And, remember that the words are only seven percent of what the listener takes away. Your tone, volume and inflection are 38 percent. Body language, eye contact and facial expressions are 55 percent. So, just as Maya Angelo said so astutely, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

How To Lead Compassionately In The Time Of Coronavirus
Courtesy of Marie Elena

What are some characteristics of a successful leader that are especially important during a time like this?

Avoid polarized thinking. Any good problem-solving strategy includes multiple options. When the brain is stuck in fight, fright or freeze, it seems like everything is black or white. Get in a room with your trusted colleagues and advisors and brainstorm ideas. Know that there are always many more options available than what you initially thought. 

Remember to also stay centered. Slow down. Create time to think. Do your five-count belly breathing, take a walk, avoid the news, meditate—whatever keeps you grounded and connected. It’s from this space that possibilities show up. This is because you are able to see things from a different point of view when anxiety and fear aren’t running you. Remember your mindset and be willing to shift your lens. Twenty percent of the workforce may be losing their jobs, but 80 percent are keeping them.

What are some books or resources senior management should reference to navigate the crisis effectively?