Empowering Innovative Leadership during Crisis

By David Peterson

Crises will come. They are inevitable. You just can’t be sure when or what form they will take. Your next crisis might be a situation you have rehearsed over and over—or it might be something completely out of left field. Regardless of what the crisis is or when it manifests, the key issue is whether you and your organization will perform at a high level at that crucial moment.

As a marketer, you know that these are the moments that can define your brand.

We’ve talked about the actions that can lessen the negative effects of a crisis. But what about the people taking those actions? How do you prepare them to keep their heads and make good decisions in the moment of crisis?

Effective managers can create an environment where employees at all levels feel prepared to step up and shine in a crisis. It starts with the organization’s attitudes towards employee behaviors that exhibit creativity and rapid decision-making in everyday situations.

Let’s examine what effective organizations do to encourage crisis champions.

Praise small examples.

If you recognize someone who does something smart in a non-crisis situation—perhaps a situation that is relatively insignificant—it emboldens that person to take similar action in a more critical situation. Further, coworkers see that management has taken the time to recognize positive employee action. They notice that this type of behavior is rewarded and begin modeling that behavior. Some people are natural leaders—they are ready to step up without being asked. Others need some prodding, which takes us to the next point.

Let people know.

You want your staff to step up in a crisis—but have you ever actually said that to them? You might think, “Well, that should be obvious. I shouldn’t have to spell it out.” For some of your staff that is true. But you still need to clearly and directly tell your organization that a time of crisis will come when anyone could be faced with a new scenario—a moment of decision when they can take action or not. You expect them to act appropriately.

Make it clear that if they already feel uncomfortable with that prospect, they can come to you privately and talk about their hesitation. Employees come from a wide range of backgrounds, and it’s possible one of yours has faced crisis in the past. Talk it through and make sure you understand their reluctance in advance of an actual crisis.

Shortly after 9/11, I was in Panama getting ready to fly back to the U.S. with two other executives. While were in the gate area, the pilot approached us 15 minutes before boarding and said to us, “Hey, I want you to be alert back there today. If you see something fishy, you will not hesitate to take action. I want to make sure you guys are on my team.”

So soon after the tragedy of 9/11, we needed no other instructions. We assured the captain that we were in fact “on his team.” We landed in the U.S. without incident, but I can honestly say I was more vigilant on that flight than any other flight before or since. That captain was not going to assume we would take action in a crisis. He took the time to let us know his expectation. And so should you.

Reward (some) failures.

This is a tough one for many managers and executives. We abhor mistakes, especially in an industry like financial services.

But note the difference between mistakes of process and mistakes of innovation.

Consider a standard process, such as a bank teller balancing cash at the end of a shift. After an initial training period, it is not acceptable for that employee to continually be short or over. This is an example of a mistake in process.

On the other hand, consider the employee who goes out of the way to provide service to a customer in a unique way. For example, what about an employee who leaves the institution to drive some paperwork over to a customer that cannot make it into the bank? That employee may unintentionally be out of bounds on some policy or procedure.

How you handle that situation may make the difference in how that same employee steps up in a crisis situation. Let’s say you blast away, harshly criticizing the error in innovation—how the employee left the branch understaffed required other employees to cover? Or worse, say you do so openly in front of other staff. This will stifle creativity, limiting future innovative behavior.

Again, coworkers will notice that innovative actions are not rewarded and will subsequently limit exhibiting them. They learn to be hesitant in their actions, possibly expecting punishment for trying something out of the box. This is the exact opposite attitude you need them to have in a crisis.

By creating a work environment where people are not free to innovate without recriminations, you will inhibit your staff from stepping up with innovation and boldness in a crisis. Obviously, employees cannot do whatever they please without consequences. If employees make errors in innovation, then privately take them aside, praise their innovation, and gently instruct them in how to take similar action in the next situation while staying within the appropriate guidelines, procedures, or policy. Privately!

Make innovation fun.

At the end of the day, most crises will be solved by either quick action (e.g., activating the shut-off valve for water flowing into the server room) or through innovative thinking. The problem with innovative thinking is it may be difficult to quickly go into creative problem-solving mode—especially if you are not regularly working on your creative thinking skills.

As a manager or executive, you need to encourage all employees—not just a select few—to be regularly thinking creatively and acting innovatively. Provide time and training to enhance their natural ability to be creative.

Some managers may chafe at this idea. But I cannot think of a single business in today’s economy that would not benefit from every employee knowing that creative thinking is encouraged and rewarded—and coming up with innovative solutions large and small.

We humans are innately curious and innovative, and we respond to a sense of fun. But as we age, we learn to conform to certain rules, mores, and decorum. In short, we do as we are told.

It is a shame, though, when the work environment extinguishes our inventiveness, inquisitiveness, and fun. If you want to see humans who exhibit all the creative characteristics you want in see in your employees, go watch children play on the playground. Children are incredibly inventive and unashamed.

How are you enabling fun—pure creative fun—at your organization? If you are not Google or Facebook, perhaps you cannot have expensive “thinking rooms” or a big slide to get down to the main floor. But in many small ways, you can encourage fun. That leads to a more relaxed, open attitude in all employees.

Combine that with letting them know you expect them to step up in a crisis. Consistently praise small successes, and never blast employees for errors in innovation. That will give you a key ingredient in preparing your organization to be ready to effectively remediate a crisis—regardless of when or from what direction it should arise.

David Peterson is president at U.S. Dataworks a fintech provider specializing in payments, payment routing and integrated receivables.