Coaching Your People Through a Crisis

Posted by Michael Watkins

It’s all-too-easy to shift into “action mode” during a crisis and forget that your people are experiencing great uncertainty about their futures. So, even as you experience the powerful impulse to act, temper that with a focus on coaching your people through a potentially crippling period of uncertainty. While the situation may be very difficult, and there are no magic bullets, there are a few things that can help:

Be emotionally available. First and foremost, your people need to know that you understand what they are going through. In a crisis, that means checking in often, monitoring moods, and paying attention to what your people are talking about. That way, you will be able to anticipate and directly acknowledge their worries and fears, even if you don’t have all the answers.

Separate fact from fiction. Help your people not get distracted by false information. If a rumor surfaces, ask where it comes from until you know the source. If your people are making unfounded assumptions – optimistic or pessimistic – explore what they are basing their assumptions on and help them see the bigger picture.

Be an optimistic realist. Focus your people on what really is and is not likely to change. Challenge them to find realistic ways of making lemonade out of lemons. But don’t sugar-coat the situation, or people will lose faith in you. Help them see the areas to which they are still able to contribute.

Temper their urge to over-react. Help keep things as stable as possible. Crisis brings out the latent manic-depressive in many people. They are up, they are down, they are all around. It’s your job to stay calm and talk people off the ledge. This applies to you too! Strive to strike the right balance. If you are too emotional, there is no security. If you are too calm, they will think you are not taking the crisis seriously enough.

Figure out what is still worth doing. Regardless of how bad things look, there still have to be battles worth fighting, even if it is just to get a personal sense of closure. So figure out what those must-win battles are and focus your people on them.

Focus on the short term. While many lament that businesses have too much short-term orientation, a crisis is the time when it makes sense to focus on what can be done now. Ask what hat are we going to do in the next week, two weeks, month?

Coaching for motivation

Critically, as you coach, your people stay motivated, focus first on understanding what is demotivating for them, and adjust your approach accordingly. To do this, it helps to have a framework for understanding motivation and the implications for leading during a crisis. The one we have found to be most useful for coaching in crisis situations was developed by the motivational psychologist David McClelland and distinguishes amongst peoples’ needs for power, achievement, and affiliation, as summarized in the table below.


People are usually be motivated by more than one of these, but one is likely to be dominant. So, focus first on understanding what that is, based on what you know and have observed, and then coach accordingly. When leaders coach their direct reports, it is an opportunity for both the leader and the direct report to learn. Coaching is the opposite of knowing; knowing gets in the way of learning. In other words, don’t feel like you need to be the expert before engaging in meaningful conversations.

Preparing yourself

As you seek to help coach your people to stay motivated, you can find yourself caught in an emotional vise. Even as you try to put on a brave face to deal with distress in your team, you have to cope with the potential impacts on your own life and livelihood. Even you try to set goals and motivate people to attain them, your own morale may be deteriorating.

  • Coach yourself. The first step is to ask yourself, what motivates you? Which of the box(es) above are you in? For example, if you feel like you are motivated by power, and you lack control and influence, how might you set short-term objectives to organize others? Can you identify areas that you are in control of right now, and do not need permission from others to act on? And then, how might you bring attention to the work you and your team are doing? Alternatively, if your need for achievement is strong, and you find yourself paralyzed by the risk of failure, you may need to ask yourself, what are you really afraid of? What are the consequences, both positive and negative, of retreating? As a result of the self-reflection, do you have new insights? How can you put them into action?
  • Reframe to energize. If you usually are not motivated by coaching or get depleted by having to focus all of your energy on others, try to reframe the situation. If, for example, you are driven by achievement but have many people on your team who have high needs for affiliation, reframing may help you find the energy to give them what they need. Framing the situation as “By helping people find ways of connecting, they will be better able to meet deadlines, and I will be able to have more time to work on the strategy” may be more motivating for you then “I need to spend the next hour talking to people.”
  • Identify your blind spots. Once you identify your motivational needs, you need to identify your blind spots. Even if intellectually you understand that people have different motivations, you may still act like others are motivated by the same things you are. For example, if you are driven by achievement, you need to be especially prepared to listen for power and affiliation.
  • Focus your attention. Who most needs you right now? What do you know about this person? What do you think motivates them? How do you normally engage? When you have had productive conversations in the past, what made them productive? The first step in coaching is about the connection and trust-building. You want to draw on past experiences to set the tone of the conversation, the place, and the timing. Conversations do not have to be long and can use a wide variety of communication methods, including virtual and texting (especially for younger workers).
  • Be curious. Many leaders are hesitant to coach or have deeper conversations for fear that they won’t be able to deal with others’ distress. You may be afraid that you will identify more problems or expectations or that you don’t have the skill. Keep in mind that the purpose of coaching is to help people tap into their motivations, explore possibilities, and find their own solutions.

Having coaching conversations

No one is expecting you to be a professional coach, so don’t overthink it. This is a chance for you to connect with your people. All you need to is be curious, listen, and ask good questions pertaining to what is on the person’s mind. By keeping your focus on the person, you are showing empathy. That doesn’t mean you can’t challenge perspectives by asking if there are other ways to look at the current situation and yet still show you care. You can also add new information and ask how this new information relates to them. People who can find their own solutions, unique to them, are more motivated to act.

In a crisis, your people will appreciate your efforts to have meaningful conversations. That in itself can tap motivation.


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