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In the span of two short months, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic triggered the closure of more than 100,000 small businesses in the U.S. and put a staggering 7.5 million small companies at risk of shutting down. In addition, many professionals around the world have experienced disruption in both their work and personal lives. For example, the sudden shift from face-to-face to remote work arrangements, coupled with the added challenge of child care and homeschooling responsibilities, has put strain on many working families.
As a mother and as a social scientist, not only have I experienced this disruption up close myself, but I have also had the unique opportunity to study how others are dealing with the challenges that the pandemic has brought into their lives — at work and beyond. To my surprise, rather than emphasizing struggles, my conversations with several small business owners — including the founders of a digital media company, a recently launched design-consulting firm, and a boutique hotel (referred to here as MediaCo, DesignCo, and HotelCo, respectively) — suggest how crises can help organizations become stronger.
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Based on my data, I outline how managers can reenergize their businesses by leading with authenticity and grace during moments of crisis.
Meet Ambiguity With Introspection
Employees often affiliate with their companies as a means to reduce uncertainty, achieve security, and fulfill their foundational needs for belonging and self-enhancement. However, organizations have become increasingly vulnerable to events such as bankruptcies, corporate scandals, layoffs, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, rather than offering certainty and security to their employees, organizations may instead trigger ambiguity. For those individuals who invest considerable time and effort at work, this can be paralyzing.
Yet, there are productive ways to keep moving while business is at a standstill, or when we ourselves feel we’re at a standstill due to unsettling changes in our work environments. For example, when threatened by the inability to film — a critical aspect of their work — the cofounders of MediaCo found solace in self-reflection, asking questions such as “What really matters to us?” “What is ‘core’ and what is ‘periphery’ to our business?” “Who are we, and who do we want to be?” and “Where do we want to go next?”
Posing and answering these types of foundational questions in a time of uncertainty provides a sense of control and can help replenish energy and focus. Indeed, although doubt lingers, MediaCo’s team felt reinvigorated by the process of clarifying their values, their interests, and the trajectory of their business.
One important outcome of conversations around these questions was that the company streamlined its activities according to its identity and values. For example, it decided to avoid certain target markets, to reconsider its need for filming space, and to establish new work routines in an effort to share ideas more effectively.
As one of MediaCo’s cofounders put it, “Although we cannot change what is happening to the world, we can start by getting our own house in order.” He also admitted that without the challenges brought forward by the pandemic, the company might not have otherwise engaged in such reflecting or capitalized on the opportunities afforded by it.
Similarly, the owner of HotelCo explained that she and her team “doubled down on what we believe in — what makes us ‘who we are.’ We could have shifted our strategy, but today more than ever, it seems important to staying true to self. And it feels right.” In remaining anchored to their identity as providers of exclusive guest experiences, she also admitted that “we are not looking to benefit from our efforts immediately. We are investing in our future.” This insight brings me to my next point.
Anchor More on Relationships and Learning, Less on Outcomes
Crises can be challenging not only because they paralyze workers psychologically by removing a sense of security, but more pragmatically because they undermine workers’ ability to do their jobs and to achieve their goals in the short term.
Paradoxically, relaxing the focus on outcomes and investing more in cultivating positive relationships and learning offers a pathway for organizations to achieve those very outcomes. Why? Psychologically, anchoring on positive relationships and learning provides a sense of purpose and stability, particularly during uncertain times. More instrumentally, positive relationships create space for deeper understanding and trust. Together with the acquisition of new knowledge or skills, understanding and trust increase the ability of individuals to empathize with others. With such empathy, leaders and teams have a greater likelihood of identifying satisfying solutions, from developing desirable products and services to creating effective work arrangements.
The founder of DesignCo noted that he took the time to reconnect with an old manager. “I just asked if there was anything that I could do to help her. I may be on my way to my biggest contract yet — and I did not know it six days ago, when I first spoke with her.”
Reflecting on her work relationships following the outbreak of COVID-19, HotelCo’s owner focused in on the performance of her team. In an industry that was immediately upended by the pandemic, the company faced an overwhelming list of changes to the way employees worked, from cleaning procedures to ensuring guest safety. The adjustments that her team members embraced and their can-do attitudes further affirmed to her their dedication. As she put it, “People’s jobs changed, but their commitment did not. … I knew that they were committed before, but the current situation made it evident.”
When it came to anchoring relationships in recent months, MediaCo strengthened its connections with existing clients. This helped the team line up new projects and build back confidence. According to one of the cofounders, “It is the people that we work with that are making the difference.” Today, this deliberate investment in building deeper relationships has reduced the number of relationships in which MediaCo actively invests and turned those that the company nurtures into collaborative partnerships.
The cultivating analogy is one that came up recurrently in my interviews: “It would be damaging to think of now as a time of drought. It is time to seed — the harvest will come.” For MediaCo, beyond building deeper connections, part of “cultivating” involves experimenting with new ways of producing documentaries and with learning new techniques for creating rich media content. For HotelCo’s team, cultivating means focusing, without exception, on delivering high-quality experiences for guests while (albeit reluctantly) accepting the unpredictability and volatility of bookings during an unprecedented time for travel and hospitality.
A third reason why crises can become difficult to overcome is that many organizations tend to close in. This is often a result of efforts to protect limited resources, but it can be harmful nonetheless. For example, a company may cut costs or limit any activity that is not critical to its mission.
My data invites managers to recognize the plentitude of resources at their organizations’ disposal. Although guarding some of these resources may be prudent, there can be many benefits to donating some of these resources to others. In times of crisis, giving back may not only serve as a powerful relationship-building tool but can also bolster workers’ self-efficacy by giving them a sense of purpose and agency.
DesignCo’s founder decided to create a dedicated space for free digital media resources within his broader portfolio of offerings and to curate this content personally. Leveraging his unique knowledge and skills for others helped him “learn that an abundance mentality is self-fulfilling” and served as a reminder that, individually and collectively, we have more to give than we may realize.
Similarly, MediaCo’s team decided to create and donate two call-to-action videos in support of COVID-19 relief efforts. Doing so allowed them to contribute their skills (even when stuck at home) and helped give voice to issues that they held in high regard. Reflecting back on their choice to generate and gift this content, one of the cofounders explained, “Our business was completely disrupted. Things came to a full halt for two weeks.” However, by giving back, members of MediaCo’s team gained renewed confidence in their execution abilities, formed new connections, and — perhaps most important — remained engaged and moving, even during a slow time.
By nurturing their core, cultivating deeper relationships and learning, and finding ways to give back, organizations may not only forge a path for survival but also become stronger through a crisis. In times of utter uncertainty, looking in and looking out for others is a promising pathway forward.