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5 Leadership Takeaways From Italy’s Coronavirus Response

Jerry Connor
June, 2020

Originally published by CEOWorld Magazine.

The closest parallel to today’s COVID-19 pandemic might be the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak, which is a time few living people can remember. Consequently, modern executives are now expected to make unprecedented management decisions without any direct experience or information. Still, that doesn’t mean they can’t evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t for other leaders — such as those from Italy.

Mask wearing man

Italy made early headlines as the first Western country to be impacted significantly by the coronavirus. This also means it could hold the seeds for managerial best practices. Did leaders inspire confidence? Were they able to navigate expected and unexpected employee reactions to lockdowns and quarantines? Did they foster anxiety or positivity? How do leaders prepare their businesses to emerge from this crisis in good shape?

My company has an office in Milan, and we’ve worked with them to interview business leaders in Northern Italy to identify moments that were critical for them. We also mapped out the optimal response to each scenario.

Leadership Tactics to Rely On

As the CEO of Italian tire company Pirelli said earlier this month, careful preparation could mean your company emerges from this pandemic stronger than ever. However, mobilizing and engaging employees in a changing or uncertain environment will present significant challenges.

So what would Italian leaders describe as being the core insights to learn from in responding to COVID-19? Here are five tried-and-tested tips leaders can keep in mind to ensure their companies — and their people — are supported through the pandemic:

1. Give people control in times of uncertainty. Telling a team that everything’s going to be fine doesn’t cut it or fuel empowerment. Instead, it sounds like a platitude — and that prediction might also be wrong. As The New York Times reported, one Italian Democratic Party leader told his constituents to carry on with life as usual at the end of February. By mid-March, he had been diagnosed with the virus, too.

Everyone understands the negative aspects of the pandemic — the danger here is that people end up feeling like they lack control. This can make people feel hopeless, then helpless: According to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helplessness leads to withdrawal and eventual disengagement.

Teams can take bad news. But great leaders find a way to frame challenges in a way people can respond to and give them something they can control. For instance, a leader might announce: “Times are tough, but we’re not giving in. We need to move our business online. How soon can you be ready?” This message is one of realism and grit, and it invites others to be part of solving a problem. It gives them back control despite any uncertainty.

2. Forge human connections. Empathy and emotional intelligence are valuable skills, but they’re especially important during uncertain times. Almost everyone is working remotely. Many people are juggling childcare and, as a result, need to flex their hours within the working day. With these sweeping changes, it’s crucial to approach each employee’s situation with sensitivity.

Humans also crave connection. Ironically, remote work has been heralded as everything from the key to heightened productivity to the inevitable wave of the future, but research from San José State University indicates that job satisfaction drops with more virtual hours.

This means leaders must also create and celebrate shareworthy moments. Otherwise, workers won’t feel bonded and critical informal conversations (such as noticing when colleagues have too much on their plates and offering to share the workload) will be missed.

In Italy, for instance, sheltering residents took it upon themselves to connect via impromptu outbursts of joy and resilience. This can certainly be replicated in a business context: Even 15-minute teleconferencing breaks or virtual watercooler chats allow for these vital informal connections.

3. Banish preconceived biases. “People issues” don’t go away during a crisis. All leaders will still have high and low performers and people who are easy and difficult to work with. What we’ve learned from Italy, however, is that the judgments and biases we’ve built up about people in previous years must be treated with care. The situation is different, and individuals are under complex (and often unexpected) pressure.

We heard many stories from Italy about this: Leaders who took a few extra minutes to hold back their judgments — and really seek to understand what was going on in their new context — saw their compassion pay out in dividends.

Is it hard to disregard past data and jettison biases? Absolutely. However, it’s important to give everyone the benefit of the doubt (at least initially) and view situations through different lenses based on changing workplace dynamics. Instead of operating on “transmit” rather than “receive” impulses, executives should listen and understand before offering feedback.

4. Turn meltdowns into learning moments. Leaders in Italy said that if your team is big enough, you can almost guarantee that one or more people will have a meltdown. Those people might express their feelings if they trust you enough, but others will bottle it up. This is inevitable.

Individuals are gripped in fear because of COVID-19’s potential impact: They might fear losing their job or believe that their career is over. Meltdowns can come swiftly when people feel overly stressed, so it’s important for leaders to understand how to help employees deal with these concerns.

Unfortunately, too many executives try to make workers feel better or try to fix the problem temporarily. That’s not the answer. The only way to successfully coach people through a meltdown is to allow them to express their feelings and concerns. Only then can everyone gain perspective and discuss realistic ways forward.

5. Be open to a new reality with customer behavior. Customers aren’t showing the same purchasing habits in this changing world, which means we all have to let go of our pre-coronavirus assumptions. It’s a myth that uneducated people get stuck in their ways. The brightest ones are usually the most attached to their beliefs: They’ve seen those beliefs ring true in the past, and they have the intellect to keep justifying their position. But the world is changing fast.

As an article in Harvard Business Review explained, Italy’s initial intervention delays were because of confirmation bias. In other words, people in power treated COVID-19 like something familiar. It wasn’t, and it didn’t transmit as expected. Therefore, countless Italian citizens fell ill because everyone was unprepared for a virus that behaved unlike anything they had seen before.

We saw this pattern emerge with Italian business leaders as well. Customers’ buying patterns changed, and their needs shifted. Italian leaders found their teams responding using old mindsets and assumptions, which meant more deals were lost.

It might seem challenging to adapt, but we do it every day when we synthesize incoming information. During this crisis, leaders must acknowledge the changing world and rapidly pivot when customers postpone or cancel orders. That way, companies can maintain and nurture key relationships.

Over the coming months and years, leaders will be judged on their actions surrounding and responses to COVID-19. Those who learn from the missteps of others will rise to the forefront as proactive, flexible, and compassionate.

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