How leaders during a crisis can reframe negative thoughts to create positive impact

We are all powerful influencers and leaders during a crisis are certainly no exception. When our thoughts are fearful and our expression of them is emotionally charged, we influence how we feel inside. We also affect how those around us feel. In the midst of a crisis like a global pandemic, it’s not difficult to catastrophize. To imagine the worst. To ruminate on these thoughts until they establish as repeating loops of negative self talk.

When we share this internal negative self talk with those we lead, we spread the negativity. It’s not intentional, but language is a virus. And our brains are hardwired to survival mode. Our brains and our words conspire to ensure we pay extra attention to existential threats and we often share the bad news liberally.

But we can take control of these thoughts and reframe them to be less damaging to ourselves and others, and even inspiring. Leaders during this, or any other crisis can use language to help flatten the curve of rising negativity and despondency.

The science of cognitive behaviour

If you’re familiar with cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), you know that the basic idea is to challenge unhelpful cognitive distortions and improve emotional regulation.

There are countless articles and apps available that, along with a little discipline, help us develop better coping strategies and by extension, provide more positive leadership during these stressful times.

Reframe #1: From helpless to inspired LEADER’S INTERNAL CRISIS DIALOGUE:

“I actually feel helpless right now. This is a complete disaster and there’s absolutely nothing of substance I can do about it beyond supporting the social distancing message like everyone else.”

Notice the adjectives and expressions at work here – complete disaster and absolutely nothing. It’s not just a disaster, it’s a complete disaster. Is there anything less than nothing? Yes, there is absolutely nothing. This is powerful negative self talk that can easily evolve into stubborn loops of internal dialogue and despondency.CBT instructs us to try challenging these thoughts. Is it really true that there’s absolutely nothing the leader can do in this crisis?


To start with, they should reconsider this kind of thinking instead of accepting it and potentially sharing them. In this case, they can push for a virtual brainstorm with employees. Someone attending suddenly realizes that they can switch production and start making alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead of gin. Everyone feels inspired instead of defeated. The takeaway is clear: don’t settle for negative thoughts without first interrogating them for veracity. It’s usually the case that there is plenty of actions to take towards the positive.Here’s is an example of another cognitive distortion many leaders are likely wrestling with today.

Reframe #2: It’s an opportunity to learn and become stronger LEADER’S SELF TALK DURING CRISIS:

“I feel totally responsible for this. I’ve got to be honest to my employees. Let them know that it’s all on me, accept responsibility, acknowledge my mistakes, hope for forgiveness and assure them we’ll be better prepared next time.”

Here, the leader is interpreting their own experience of the crisis based on how they feel versus the actual facts. The opportunity is to challenge that thinking before it settles in as a looping sound bite of negative internal dialogue. Before the leader spreads their negativity like a virus through the language they choose, even if the intent was to help employees feel better.


Balance optimism with credibility. Is the leader totally responsible for COVID-19? Of course not. Could the company have been better prepared? Possibly. Likely. How might that initial distortion sound after challenging it with hard facts?

“We are in the midst of the greatest challenge our company has ever faced. Facing that challenge is not easy and it won’t be behind us for some time. But we are learning every day. We’re using that knowledge to prevent something like this from happening to us again. We are more ready for the future than we were before.”

Reframe #3: Let’s build something even better together


“This has thrown us into complete turmoil. We’re going to have to rebuild entirely from the ground up to find a new way to operate. I don’t even know where to start, but I know we have to tear everything down.”

Sadly this may be true for some organizations, but that doesn’t automatically make it true for yours. So you examine the thought: are you truly in complete turmoil? The entire world is now in varying degrees of turmoil, yes, but is your turmoil complete? Likely not. Do you have to rebuild entirely? Tear everything down? This suggests there is nothing inherent in your organization today that can be retooled for a new reality. Is this really the case?


“Like the rest of the world, we have been thrown into turmoil. But we’re are strong team. And without resorting to platitudes, there’s no reason we can’t take this on as a way to reshape who we are for a new reality. So much of what we do today can be evolved for tomorrow. I have no doubt about this because I’ve seen your ingenuity in action time and time again. Let’s build something new. Something we can be even more proud of.”

For leaders, for anyone, this crisis gives us the opportunity to audit how we think during times of crisis. To identify our negative self talk (we all do it). To respect our power to influence others by our feelings and language. Then when we do share our thoughts, we will influence people by spreading inspiring, credible ideas. We will use the language of leaders.

We shared what Spirit of York Distillery did to respond to crisis in this blog we wrote about letting kindness lead.

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