We often look to the past to make decisions for the future. Yet the coronavirus pandemic presents a unique dilemma: How can we navigate circumstances that none of us has ever experienced? 

The implications of this pandemic — and the steps taken by public health officials, political leaders and corporate executives — will shape global consumer behavior for decades to come. 

While none of us has experienced a crisis like COVID-19, and there’s certainly no rulebook to guide us, what we can do is learn from the actions taken by business leaders and managers, and the companies they represent. As today’s leaders look to diminish fear and wade through uncertainty, the following behaviors — shown by those who were the winners after the economy’s last major downturn — can help point the way forward:

1. Know your triggers: People are able to adapt to changing circumstances. There are times when we thrive — racing ahead to experiment and innovate. Other times we survive — hunkering down, resisting or killing off external threats and focusing on preservation. 

These internal “survive” and “thrive” states are activated in different ways, many of which are unconscious. To some degree, we are biologically predisposed to making rash decisions under stressful conditions that don’t always suit our end-goal. Overcoming these unconscious triggers helps us better manage change and make improved decisions — especially during a pandemic.

2. Understand fear: Fear is the biggest driver of our response to a crisis. COVID-19 is real and the death toll is climbing. Under these conditions, anxiety can be magnified. We can — and must — take steps to mitigate fear in order to survive.

Lack of predictability, lack of control, and lack of an end in sight are the primary drivers of fear. Post-recession winners take immediate action to shift all three of these dimensions in order to harness the potential of their workforces. They do this by overcoming the unconscious actions and emotions that drive fear and, in turn, affect performance and results.

For some leaders, the ability to recognize and intuitively manage fear is an inherent talent, while others learn this critical skill though experience. Nevertheless, in times of crisis especially, the behaviors exhibited by a leadership team — positive or negative — are transmitted to individuals and teams throughout the organization and amplified and reinforced by the way leaders take action and make decisions.

3. Create predictability: Our brains are wired from birth to perform most efficiently in a predictable environment. The problem now is that predictability is at a low. Many don’t yet know if or when we will be going back to work. We don’t know whether we will find household staples at the supermarket. Is that cough we had yesterday the onset of COVID-19 or just a cough?  

Post-recession winners create a sense of predictability where there is little or none. They do this by focusing on communication within the organization; continuing to run the business “as much as usual” to avoid unnecessary change, and regularly celebrating progress, including big and small wins.

4. Reframe control: Post-recession winners recognize the necessity to re-establish a sense of control among their employees.

While no one can predict the duration of COVID-19 or the severity of the economic contraction, leaders can coach their teams to clearly differentiate between what they can and can’t control, and help them refocus on what’s in their power. 

In times of uncertainty, it’s not uncommon to find leaders spending more time thinking about “what” is being done, versus “how” it’s being done. Post-recession winners reverse this. When uncertainty is off the charts, winners create a sense of control by focusing on how the work is done. They fine-tune processes to yield expected results. 

5. Find meaning: In times of crisis, people want to know their contribution is meaningful and that they are making a difference. 

Amid COVID-19, Kraft Heinz

, for example, has encouraged shop-floor employees to talk about their role for the company and the country. One employee said she is doing her job for those in America who are in lockdown. Her role conveys pride and purpose. Such corporate initiatives are occurring sporadically, but not nearly often enough. 

6. Look ahead: Most of us live day-by-day. Winners shift this mental model to focus on a long-term vision for the future. They don’t lose sight of their opportunity to impact the world and make a difference. Winners know that emotions are contagious and that, by illuminating positive outcomes that are both realistic and attainable, they can build an unstoppable engine to get their workforce through almost any adversity. 

During the 2000 recession, for example, Staples emerged as a clear winner. Rather than focusing on layoffs — a tactic pursued by its competitor Office Depot

— Staples contained operating costs, shuttered underperforming facilities and increased its workforce by 10% to support newly introduced products and services. 

In this current crisis, for example, Domino’s Pizza

has rewritten entire operating procedures for its 17,000 global locations to accommodate the COVID-19 reality. Similarly, General Motors

quickly ramped up the highly complex production of ventilators, which involved coordinating an entirely new supply-chain operation.  

The only thing stronger than fear is creating the resolute belief that there is a path forward. Even in the darkest of times, post-recession winners have used this belief to shine a light into the uncertain future — helping employees see that the impossible is possible.

Rick Western is CEO of Kotter. Russell Raath is president of Kotter.

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