Crisis Leadership

Former Google HR Chief Provides 10 Ways To Lead Through Crisis

Effective leadership during times of stability can be challenging enough. But with COVID-19 forcing many people to work from home, leading a company or team through a time like this brings on added layers of complexity.

What’s the right approach? For that we caught up with Laszlo Bock, co-founder of Humu, whose technology combines machine learning with people science to “nudge” employees toward better work habits and unlock the potential of individuals, teams, and organizations.

Bock spent 11 years as Google’s senior vice president of people operations (equivalent to a chief human resources officer), is the author of the 2015 bestselling book Work Rules, and he had plenty to share about leading through crisis. Read on for his recommendations.

Keep Calm And Consistent

Bock stressed the importance of leaders projecting calm to their teams amid the chaos. The best way to do that, he said, is by having a consistent demeanor and message, even if you are saying the same, simple thing over and over.

“It may feel like you’re repeating yourself, but it’s reassuring for your team to hear from you,” Bock noted.

He also recommended scheduling regular time with employees to provide status updates and address concerns. 

“Something as simple as a daily 15-minute video check-in can make a big difference over time,” Bock said. “People crave stability during these times. By projecting calm, it primes people to worry less and to do their best work.”

It also helps keep them aligned, he added.

Practice What You Preach

The calm you’re trying to spread needs to come from a genuine place. But projecting calm when one’s own nerves are frayed can be difficult. Bock suggested leaders seek outlets to vent their own frustrations and feelings during these times, as well as immersing themselves in activities outside of work that offer mental breaks and rejuvenation.  

Support Principles Over Policies

In good times as well as bad, a focus on principles rather than rules and policies is the way to go.

“With rules, there are always exceptions and carve-outs,” Bock said. “Principles scale forever.”

His point is that no rule will perfectly fit every person and every situation, and too much structure or rigidity around process inhibits motivation and innovation.

“Say you set a rule that a team must meet every Monday morning at 9 a.m. Compare that to establishing a principle stating that the team should stay in sync and give each person an equal opportunity to weigh in on important decisions,” Bock explained. “The principle gives the team freedom to flex depending on the situation but still makes it clear what members should prioritize.”

Show Compassion

In addition to projecting calm, leaders must also be compassionate.

“Empathy comes before productivity,” Bock said. “If your team is freaked out, they are not going to be productive.”

Begin meetings asking about how people are doing, and confirm their loved ones are safe and healthy, to convey that you care, Bock advised.


Laszlo Bock
“People crave stability during these times. By projecting calm, it primes people to worry less and to do their best work.”
Laszlo Bock, Co-Founder, Humu

Paint A Realistic Picture

As much as they can, it’s important that leaders provide their people with honest rationale for their decisions, Bock said. For example, talk candidly about the fact that your company will be more conservative during a time when revenue will be harder to come by. Be more explicit about goals, meetings with management, and the like.

Such candor will help keep people focused on their work rather than wondering what might be going on, he said.

Prioritize Well-Being

Stress can take a toll. Bock recommended that leaders factor in the mental health of their teams by encouraging them to exercise, take breaks during the day, practice meditation, or use mindfulness techniques.

And just as leaders can offer empathy and comfort to their employees, it also can work in reverse. Bock said one of his colleagues reminded him at a time he was stressed to take a three-minute break for mindfulness. The advice “stopped me in my tracks, and it helped offer me perspective at a time when I needed it,” he said.  

If You Can, Scout For Talent

A downturn can be a good time to recruit, if you are able, Bock said. With a staggering number of people who have become unemployed as the result of the pandemic, this can be an opportunity to build your bench.

“We all know good people who have lost their jobs,” Bock noted. “With so many individuals being laid off due to circumstances rather than performance, organizations have the opportunity to bring on top talent that otherwise might not have been on the market.”

Offer Perspective

If your workforce includes people who are 33 years old or younger, keep in mind that they have never been through an economic downturn before as a working adult—making this time especially unsettling. Offering lessons from past crises can be helpful, Bock said. While it’s true that each economic downturn has its own unique attributes, there are many similarities, as well.

Convey Good News

It is also a good idea for leaders to celebrate wins, no matter how small, whenever they appear, Bock advised. But don’t go overboard in such a way that creates a false hope or an overly positive narrative. In fact, acknowledging that uncertainty is appropriate, while offering good news, can spur on teams to continue to push hard.

“We are surrounded by negative news during a health and economic crisis. We need to emphasize good news when we can, as well,” Bock noted.

Cultivate A Strong Culture

Finally, the pandemic has underscored the need for leaders to recognize that team culture is more important than team composition, Bock said.

How the team functions—whether members check in on each other, take actions to prevent silos from forming, or give all members a chance to weigh in—"has never been more important to business continuity,” Bock said. “A strong culture depends on psychological safety, role clarity, dependability, and impact,” he said.   

In the end, leaders must acknowledge that this is a trying time, Bock concluded. Investing in your teams—including their well-being—focusing on resilience, and communicating honestly, calmly, and consistently are all ways to lead to the brighter times ahead.  

COVID-19 response

Up Next

Modern Enterprise

While We #StayAtHome, Social Media Is Where We Go

Information Technology

Survey: How A Remote Workforce Is Shifting CIO Priorities

From the Blog

Dig Deeper