Earthquakes, pandemic disease, long term stock market crashes–these are just some of the disasters that can sink businesses without proper leadership. But during these kinds of events, leaders must reevaluate exactly what it means to be “professional”.

Comparing Non-Crisis and Crisis Professionalism

In a non-crisis period, leaders

  • Focus on the best outcome for the company
  • Ensure overall market growth and profit
  • Draw clear lines between a balanced work and home life
  • Take the time to develop expertise in one or more areas
  • Dress to present a proper image or desired persona
  • Learn to develop their skills
  • Are transparent to build both individual trust and the company’s reputation

But in a crisis, these expectations shift dramatically. Leaders who are faced with an extraordinary challenge instead

  • Focus on the best outcome for all industries and society as a whole
  • Ensure overall safety, as well as maintenance of basic human rights and laws
  • Accept that non-professional relationships cannot be minimized and offer accommodations for workers to acknowledge the obligations involved in those relationships
  • Rapidly acquire information, analyses and recommendations from others who already have expertise
  • Dress to complete tasks and improve focus
  • Learn to meet immediate personal needs, as well as the needs of others
  • Are transparent to achieve cross-discipline, cross-industry goals

Looking critically at these lists, crisis professionalism means that leaders adopt a different moral code of conduct that prioritizes new values. This new moral code is much less concerned with fulfilling a single, original business vision and getting ahead than it is concerned with ensuring everyone’s business vision and way of life can continue. And it involves waiving previous restrictions or boundaries to allow everyone to contribute in a cooperative rather than competitive way.

Related: What Your Small Business Need to Know About the CARES Act

The Ethical Dilemma

The dilemma here then is, does the elimination of the crisis mean that leaders suddenly must abandon a broader societal view of why and how they work? Or put another way, which set of values ought to continue when the crisis is over?

People assign value sets to specific circumstances in a largely arbitrary way based on experience, feelings, tradition, and other elements. But people in fact can choose to apply a single value set across different circumstances, if upholding those values presents large enough advantages.

With this in mind, maintaining a more crisis-oriented view of professionalism carries its own risks, such as a potential increase in stress from tightened deadlines or trying to meld various systems together.

But sticking with a crisis-oriented approach to professionalism also has some big potential benefits. It can result in a massive reduction of both red tape and wasted resources. Individuals can find some points of common ground quickly and be faster to agree on what the priorities need to be. And while it’s still necessary to confront different points of view, respect can be slower to dissolve because everyone views the risks of failed cooperation as being too high to ignore.

Most leaders are looking for the benefits of crisis professionalism. After all, it’s difficult to argue that you would want red tape, waste, or inefficient cooperation and disrespect in everyday operations. But the value set for crisis professionalism is very different than the value set for non-crisis professionalism. And leaders might not comfortable with the level of permanent systemic change required to transition from one value set to the other, or they might not know how to facilitate that change in a practical way.

Ultimately, leaders might see crisis professionalism as the true ideal. But they need help to see it as sustainable. If they can reach that point based on good support and logical steps, the typical way of doing business might disappear to the advantage of everyone.


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