The Time to Lead is Now: Psychological Impact of A Crisis


When thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic, our main concern tends to be how it could affect our physical health.  But we don’t realize that it’s already been affecting our mental health. Leadership Buffalo asked Marsha King from Skillpoint Consulting and Joe Mazzenga from NuBrick Partners to break down the psychological impact COVID-19 has had on each of us so we could better understand it.

No one is exempt from the psychological impact of our current health crisis.  Everyone is feeling anxious right now.  Anxiety is an emotional reaction that is typically triggered by some type of loss.  It could be loss of control, routine, relationships, freedom, etc.  Once an emotion like anxiety is triggered, then we react with a behavior.  The type of behavior will depend on how we normally react to threats.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

We have three instincts when faced with a threat to our safety: fight, flight, or freeze.  We each gravitate towards one of these instincts.  Whichever instinct is more prevalent for you will dictate how you react to situations that feel threatening. 


Those who gravitate towards fight may come off as aggressive or defensive.  They may blame others or appear to be very amped up.


Those who gravitate towards flight may look for an escape from the situation or avoid it entirely.  They may stop communicating while they search for a solution.


Those who gravitate towards freeze may hide or appear stunned, aloof, or overwhelmed.  They may appear numb to the situation.

None of these reactions are incorrect.  It’s important to understand which one you utilize and which ones your family and colleagues utilize.  If you all have an understanding on how you react to threatening situations, you’re less likely to have a miscommunication during a crisis.

Leading During a Crisis

When leading a team during a crisis, there are three areas of leadership you want to consider.

Leading Yourself

You cannot lead effectively if you haven’t checked in with your own emotions.  Acknowledge the emotions you’re feeling and be vulnerable with yourself and others.  Once you create this calm for yourself, you can focus on leading others.

Leading Others

When leading others during a crisis, you need to practice empathy with those you are leading.  In our current situation, we are all grieving because we’ve lost the ability to easily connect with other people.  To support your team as they’re grieving this loss, increase connection among your team and make sure that you’re communicating consistently.

Leading an Organization

As the leader of an organization, there are a few actions you take during a time of crisis.  Develop a structure and routine for your organization.  Help your organization to focus on what can be controlled and not what is out of your control.  Plan for the future of your organization and consistently revaluate your plan as you receive new information.

Be Resilient

You and your team will need to be resilient to manage the crisis and its aftermath.  There are three elements of resilience:


Consider what tools you need to survive the current situation.  In our current health crisis, video conferencing tools have become essential to our new work environments.  Ensure that you and your organization have the tools you need readily accessible.


Take the time to assess what aspects of your short-term tactical view can be included in your long-term strategic plan.  Some elements of your survival mode may be beneficial to your organization post-crisis.


You want to create the psychological stamina to manage the aftermath of the crisis when it does come.  There are a few ways you can practice this:

  1. Increase your connection with others and remind each other that you are all managing this crisis together. 
  2. Nurture yourself.  Create a daily routine and include a mindfulness and gratitude practice.  Taking the time to exercise and be aware of your diet is also beneficial.
  3. Leverage what you’ve learned during the crisis in the future and remind yourself that your experience was not for nothing.

Using these tools to build your psychological stamina can help ensure that you will be able to make the transition out of the crisis more easily.

Looking Past COVID-19

Remind yourself and your team that working and living during a pandemic is a traumatic experience.  As we transition out of this time of crisis, remember to be thoughtful about your mental health and the mental health of those around you.  Be patient with one another and give yourself and others time to adjust to our post-pandemic “normal.”