The Two Worst Leadership Styles During a Crisis

Kim Scott, the author of Radical Candor, explains what happens when managers pretend everything is business as usual

Photo: Petar Chernaev/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the workforce in ways we’ve never experienced before. And through it all, I’ve noticed a wide range of examples of leadership — the good, the bad, and the toxic.

One of the best examples was a leader who gave everyone on their team a four-day weekend when they started working from home. They said: “Take Friday and Monday off and figure out how you’re going to rearrange your life so that you can take care of whoever is at home with you and still show up for work when possible.” This manager identified that there was work to be done, but also asked the team to figure out what work they could stop doing just for this period, recognizing that everyone is dealing with a lot.

On the other hand, I’ve been told about a leader who installed spyware on everybody’s computer so that they could see how long people were working every day. That, to put it mildly, is not helpful for morale.

Being the boss is hard during the best of times, and can be downright exhausting during a crisis. As a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review explains, the human instinct is to delay action and to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clear. It makes sense — we fear taking the wrong steps and we don’t want to unnecessarily make employees anxious. But pretending that everything is business as usual will create more problems than it will solve. The HBR showcases a few examples of outstanding leadership during the pandemic, such as that of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose March 21 talk was described as “clear, honest, and compassionate” and “acknowledged the daily sacrifices to come and inspired people to forge ahead in bearing them together.”

If you take the “delay and downplay” approach, however, it’s easy to fall into two of the worst leadership styles:

Image courtesy of Kim Scott/Radical Candor

1. Ruinous Empathy

Yes, empathy is important during a crisis. But, while it’s never wrong to move up on the “Care Personally” axis, as shown on the graph above, doing so because you want to protect your employees from potential bad news is actually “Ruinous Empathy,” and can cause harm.

Ruinous Empathy is “nice,” but ultimately unhelpful or even damaging. It’s what happens when you care about someone personally, but fail to challenge them directly. It’s praise that isn’t specific enough to help the person understand what was good, or criticism that is sugarcoated and unclear.

Ruinous Empathy is seeing somebody with their fly down, but, not wanting to embarrass them, saying nothing and consequently allowing for 15 more people to see them with their fly down. Not so “nice” after all. In the context of the coronavirus, this could look like not telling team members that the company is in trouble and they might lose their jobs. It’s telling them they did a good job when their Zoom presentation was full of typos. While your hope may be to not stress someone out even more during an already-stressful time, this kind of criticism doesn’t let the person know they need to do better, which makes it impossible for them to improve.

2. Manipulative Insincerity

Just as trying to be too nice can negatively impact employees, checking out is not the neutral behavior you might think it is. While it’s tempting to ignore problems, this can lead to what I call “Manipulative Insincerity,” which is what happens when you neither care personally, nor challenge directly. It’s praise that is nonspecific and insincere, or criticism that is neither clear nor kind.

Managers give praise and criticism that is manipulatively insincere when they are too focused on being liked, or they think they can gain some sort of political advantage by being fake, or when they are too tired to care or argue any more. Perhaps you have a client or someone you manage who is late to every virtual meeting, but you just don’t feel like dealing with them so you stay silent. This kind of behavior doesn’t allow you to understand why this person is late, and it doesn’t let them know that their actions are hurting them at work; it all but guarantees that the problems will persist endlessly, versus getting solved in a two-minute conversation.

Manipulative Insincerity is very human, but it’s also the very worst way to respond to a crisis. We pull into our turtle-like shell, and while we, of course, need to do that from time to time for our own well-being, we also need to remember as leaders that emotional labor is part of our job.

At the very core of leadership is building trust. In my book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, I wrote about Ryan Smith, the CEO of software platform Qualtrics and someone I coached. At one of our first coaching sessions, Smith asked me, “I’ve just hired this new team. How can I build trust quickly with that team so that we can get great things done?”

I responded to Ryan with a quote from economist John Stuart Mill: “The source of everything respectable and [human] either as an intellectual being or as a moral being, is that [their] errors are corrigible. [They are] capable of rectifying [their] mistakes by discussion and experience, not by experience alone. There must be discussions to show how experiences can be interpreted.” You’re being a better boss when you treat your employees like human beings who want to learn and grow.

Let’s think about that in terms of how you build trust as a leader or coach. Challenging others and encouraging them to challenge you helps build trusting relationships because it shows 1) you care enough to point out the things that aren’t going well and those that are, and 2) you are willing to admit when you’re wrong and are committed to fixing mistakes that you or others have made. Because challenging often involves disagreeing or saying no, this approach embraces conflict rather than avoiding it. But it’s worth it. In a crisis, it’s tempting to avoid conflict. And yet resolving conflict — and resolving it quickly — is one of the best things we can do to empower our teams without losing our humanity.

Kim Scott is co-founder of two consulting companies based on her bestseller Radical Candor & her newest book, Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair.

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