Reflections on pandemic leadership

A new Korn Ferry Institute study looks at how leadership behaviors changed during the COVID-19 crisis.


In an earlier Korn Ferry Institute study, we learned that, under situations of crisis, leaders react by increasing their directive leadership behavior—that is, giving clear and detailed directions to employees, exercising control, and expecting compliance with instructions. We found this was the case regarding the reaction to the Brexit referendum outcome in the United Kingdom.

To understand leadership’s response to Brexit, the Korn Ferry Institute, together with researchers from the University of Groningen, applied the threat-rigidity hypothesis, a multilevel theory that maintains the general response to conditions of threat is similar for entities across different levels. In our earlier research, we saw that directive leadership increased during the Brexit referendum, while participative leadership, which assumes capability and equality of all team members, was not affected. Research on neuropsychology in response to threat and uncertainty confirms this; it shows that the anxiety that results from uncertainty and threat leads to more careful, rigid, and halting approach behavior.

In a new study with the University of Groningen, the Korn Ferry Institute used the COVID-19 pandemic to test this hypothesis again. Unlike Brexit, the pandemic is, at its root, a major public health crisis, affecting people and organizations all over the world. Its reach and enormity, therefore, are much larger, which presumes that so too is the pandemic’s impact. After all, the COVID-19 outbreak suddenly forced us to stop traveling, stop meeting, stop having informal chats at the coffee-machine.

During the last decade, we started to discuss the impact of virtual teams and video conferencing. In 2012, a poll conducted by Ipsos, a global research company, showed that about 17% of employees around the world worked remotely to some extent. Suddenly, because of COVID-19, this became reality in 2020 for a much larger group—and not only for one day or two a week. For many, remote work was full-time.

Most of us were isolated. Professional contact was via Zoom. Monthly conference calls switched to daily virtual sessions. From a scientific perspective, it looked like a risky experiment, but working from home was an urgent necessity. Leaders had to supervise their employees from a distance, and that physical disconnect could affect how they behave and manage their teams. In spring 2020, the Financial Times introduced the term “arms-length managers.”

We have been given a unique opportunity to study the influence of such an extraordinary and shocking event on leadership behavior. Because COVID-19 affected the world, but not all countries at the same time or to the same degree, we could analyze the impact of this crisis and how its magnitude affected leaders’ behaviors in certain regions. We could also examine the effects in countries that were affected to a greater or lesser extent, or where government restrictions were either tough or more relaxed. To conduct this study, we analyzed a dataset holding monthly data for almost 27,000 managers across 48 countries and 32 sectors, profit and non-profit organizations, for January 2019 to December 2020.

Although the COVID-19 outbreak started in China in December 2019, the impact on other countries came about much later and varied significantly—particularly in the number of cases and deaths. Where Brazil has had about 679,000 COVID-19-related deaths as of August 2022, the United States has seen over 1 million; New-Zealand, on the other hand, had nearly 2,400 deaths out of 1.64 million cases, according to university data. We measured impact in two ways: as COVID-19 deaths per million people and considering the government reactions and regulations.

More unique to this crisis is its impact on work itself. The first lockdowns forced people, industries, and societies to adapt to new, unforeseen circumstances on a daily basis. Businesses shuttered, sectors suffered, and many employees, used to the bustle of a central office, had to work from home for a long period. But remote working was not possible in all industries; sectors that delivered essential services, like healthcare, still depended on their staff continuing to operate in the work environment.

For this study, we used public data to measure the possibility of working from home for each sector to find out what the impact was of the COVID-19 pandemic. For management, we looked at whether the effect of this crisis on directive leadership behaviors differed across hierarchical levels. In this way, we took into account three different levels: macro (country), meso (sector) and micro (organization). In this way, we could isolate the effect on the crisis on the country, sector, and team levels.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis, we saw an increase in directive leadership, especially in geographies where the impact of the pandemic was high. At the sector level, we saw the highest increase in directive leadership in sectors where working from home was not an option—industries like chemical, production, and retail. In industries, such as banking, legal, and education, where remote working was more common, less directive leadership behaviors were shown. On a micro level, we saw that low-level managers increased their directive leadership behaviors relatively more than those at middle or senior level. As a robustness check, we ran the same analysis for the participative leadership style. In line with the threat-rigidity hypothesis, we did not see a clear pattern of the COVID-19 crisis affecting participative leadership.

It's a common argument that leaders will become more directive as a natural reaction to a crisis. But as the pandemic continued, we did not see an overall continued increase in directive leadership during the June 2020 to December 2020 period. In most countries, the first lockdown period ended in June 2020, and government measures became less stringent or restrictive (as formally measured by the Government Stringency Index). This, again, shows that the initial shock of COVID-19 was responsible for the increase of directive leadership; if a crisis continues, or becomes “business as usual,” directive leadership does not increase.

Possibly, we see here that once the immediate threat of the COVID-19 virus diminished, so too did the increase in directive leadership. We found a significant increase in participative leadership in the timeframe of March 2020 to December 2020, especially in sectors where working from home became the new normal. In the context of working from home, which was relevant for a lot of managers and employees in our sample, managers had to lead from a distance and were expected to show a more participative style, by encouraging more autonomy among their team members, delegating responsibilities, and building consensus and commitment to shared goals. This result implies that the increase in participative leadership might have been driven by how the COVID-19 crisis unfolded during its different waves.

Working from home may also be one of the reasons why we have seen more staff turnover recently. In 2011, researchers found that turnover was higher in teams with telecommuting managers than in those working in more traditional settings. The study also found that job satisfaction in general was lower in situations of remote working. Based on the social exchange theory—which assumes people will form relationships that are most beneficial and end those with less value for them—we may expect that relations between manager and their employees may be deteriorating. Whereas in the more traditional setting, the average employee could stop by their manager’s office to ask for advice, that direct, spontaneous contact became much harder to achieve in the virtual setting. The ease of interaction has become more difficult for some because of the physical distance. In general, the socio-emotional bonding with the manager may be eroding for those not used to remote working, and therefore some organizations may see lower levels of work engagement and commitment.

Whether such an increase in directive leadership as a reaction on the crisis is effective is rather doubtful, and as found in earlier studies, such behavior might even be detrimental to performance or innovation. Directiveness tends to reduce delegation, and we know that delegation will lead to higher productivity. Participative leadership has, for the most part, a positive effect on innovation. However, in combination with a more isolated working environment, it may be less effective if managers are not more intentional about building consensus among employees—providing context and clarity, establishing processes and boundaries, showing a willingness to listen and accept the shared outcome, and empowering collaborative decision-making.