William A. Haseltine Ph.D.

Best Practices in Health

How Business Leaders Can Respond to COVID-19

Research highlights critical need to build trust before reopening.

Posted Apr 24, 2020

Many management books talk about the importance of building trust with customers to succeed, but in the age of COVID-19, trust takes on new meaning. 

When businesses reopen, the behavior of customers will be critical to containing new outbreaks. Customers who keep a respectable distance, avoid touching too many surfaces, and cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze will help reduce transmission of the virus. But those who stand too close, cough or sneeze too liberally, and neglect the need to keep common areas germ-free will contribute to its spread.

What makes a person more likely to behave in a manner that protects public health?

Studies tell us that there are a few critical elements at play. When people understand the public health risk and believe that the recommendations to protect themselves and those around them are credible and sincere, they tend to comply with protective measures. On the other hand, when public health messages are inconsistent or there’s a perception that the crisis response is biased, incompetent, or unfair, distrust and fear flourish and people are much less likely to follow the recommended rules.

Businesses can’t control all the factors at play—if people don’t trust the public health leaders and political players leading the national or statewide response to COVID-19, there is little that a single company can do. However, businesses can step in and create trust at a local level, which may have an outsize impact on the spread of the virus overall.

Imagine two restaurants, side by side. The first looks like any restaurant pre-COVID: tables packed tightly together, waiters with bare hands taking orders and serving up meals, and bathrooms with a single sign beside the sink reminding employees to wash their hands. 

The second restaurant looks quite different: tables are spaced out, waiters wear disposable gloves, hand sanitizer is widely available, and signs in the bathroom and around the dining area remind customers of how regularly rooms and tables are sanitized and how important the health of customers and staff alike is to management.

There is no doubt about the effect of each on customers. In the first, customers will follow the lead of the restaurant itself, gathering more closely together and likely becoming more careless with other protective measures, such as lengthy handwashing. In the second, customers would be more aware of their risk and more likely to modify their behavior to reduce the chance of infection.

In the absence of clear national guidance, the onus is then on business leaders and managers to create environments that promote positive behavior change and safeguard the reopening of our communities. In normal times, as described in my book World Class, the hallmark of an effective leader is a person with a clear vision, a decisive strategy developed with input from the wider team, and the willingness to hold everyone, including themselves, accountable for results. Also critical is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively to rally support for the long-term vision and shorter-term goals. In times of crisis, these qualities become ever more important. 

In times of crisis, these qualities still matter greatly. But research has shown us that one quality matters above all the rest: Trust. A lack of trust in leadership leads to disobedience and an unwillingness to follow public health measures that can save lives. The challenge for business leaders though is that trust is a delicate thing, hard to gain yet easy to lose. Once trust is lost, efforts to communicate information and promote better health behavior becomes ineffective. 

Fortunately, researchers have helped us identify six key determinants of trust that matter most in a public health crisis like the one we face today with COVID-19. 

  • Competency. Where people feel that those in charge possess the necessary knowledge and expertise. 
  • Objectivity. Where people feel that the information that is shared with them is reliable and not influenced by those with a particular agenda.
  • Fairness. Where people feel that all relevant opinions are considered and included. 
  • Consistency. Where people feel messages and actions are predictable and aligned.
  • Sincerity. Where people feel that those delivering the message are transparent, honest, and open.
  • Empathy. Where people feel that those in charge are listening to them and genuinely want the best for them.

This means to establish trust, leaders must help make people feel as though they are being dealt with competently and fairly, the information that is shared is trustworthy and consistent, and the message is delivered with honesty, empathy, and transparency. A perceived lack of any of these elements—competency, fairness, consistency, objectivity, empathy, or sincerity—will sow distrust and fear and lead to behaviors that will eventually result in new outbreaks and a renewed call to shut down businesses and stop the spread.

To help leaders flourish in their new and, perhaps to some unwelcome, role as guardians of our health, the Dean of the University of Miami’s business school, John Quelch, developed what he termed the “7 Cs” of leadership during the coronavirus crisis:

  • Calm. Commanding the situation with a level of composure that instills trust in employees and customers alike.
  • Confidence. Projecting a managerial bearing that boosts the faith of stakeholders.
  • Communication. Communicating relentlessly, keeping everyone informed and rumors at bay.
  • Collaboration. Tapping into the resources and capabilities of their entire team to identify the best solutions. 
  • Community. Recognizing the role of the business within the community and leading by example. 
  • Compassion. Looking out both for the well-being of employees and also for members of the wider community in need.
  • Cash. Preserving funds and ensuring that every step is taken to care for the financial needs of employees. 

Fostering these key elements of leadership, especially as more and more businesses reopen, is key to building the trust we need to win our battle against COVID-19, a battle that is likely to be long and drawn out over many months and possibly years. No matter what happens at the national level, each of us have a responsibility in our communities to prevent future outbreaks. Businesses must lead by example, inspiring us to act in a way that will eliminate the risk of a new coronavirus outbreak. And as customers, we have a responsibility to support the businesses we trust have our health and the well-being of our communities at heart.