How To Check-in With Your Key Stakeholders In Times Of Crisis

By: Ren Butler (Labs Manager, Australia)

Uncertainty is a different, and often harder, type of stress to handle. This is especially true for leaders. As a startup founder, you will have several key stakeholders looking to you for direction and information. Equally, during tough times they will look to you for reassurance. The word ‘unprecedented’ keeps popping up everywhere. The good news is our type, innovators, thrive on the edges of the known.

In the past decade, emotional intelligence in leadership has become seen as necessary for a business to thrive.  High Emotional Quotient, or EQ, and strong functional empathy will aid you in retaining your team, customer base and confidence of your investors. Unfortunately, ‘soft skills’ or ‘core skills’ fall by the wayside, in times of turbulence.

Below I will outline a series of questions and conversations that may help you address the feelings of instability, fear, and uncertainty. These questions are derived from Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs as published in the 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation”.

These questions will assist you in broaching difficult topics with key stakeholders as the economic climate changes rapidly before us. While these questions are specifically useful in the coming months, the skills will be continuously applied to all leadership positions. In a time of crisis, high EQ will quell the fears of your team, stakeholders, and customers and will lead to stronger growth once conditions improve.  

It should get your mind warmed up to approach conversations with key stakeholders as your startup’s operational and capital conditions change rapidly in the coming weeks and months. These are useful leadership questions to have on hand at all times though. Leading with a high EQ will get your team and customer base through a period of crisis but it will also contribute to stronger growth once outside conditions improve as well.


It’s good to remember that this framework is imperfect, but it’s been acknowledged as an acceptable model within the business community since it’s publication. It is not a linear path but a series of priorities that fluctuate based on the individual.

Physiological Needs

These needs include health, food, water, sleep, shelter and, basic functional clothes. Typically, these are thought of as needs that are prioritized during times of physical and existential crisis. It’s important to remember that in some cases, the evidence of this may not be immediately apparent. Never assume these needs are satiated within your team.

In times of economic hardship, people are often faced with the threat of losing their home and negatively changing their diet or sleep schedule. This can result in physical and mental health afflictions. While it would be hard to directly support your team or customers with threats to their foundational needs, understanding and respecting circumstances can be helpful in finding their solutions.

Questions and conversation starters:

  • Are you good for food and supplies at home? No trouble shopping?
  • Just checking, is everything solid at home? (Possibly followed by a relevant question about the person’s partner, housemate, or family)
  • Is your housing situation stable and reliable?
  • I know how much you loved pizza days at the office. Are you having your own at home now?
  • Please know you can talk to me if there’s anything stressing you out at home.

Safety

This is encompassing of personal, financial, emotional, health and psychological safety.

In many cases, personal financial instability can disturb other categories of safety. Despite your employees currently being in a stable position, it is always necessary to manage their personal expectations. In times of economic instability, they may question whether their financial safety will be jeopardized.  

Personal, financial, emotional, health and psychological safety all fall under this category. Economic crisis and the threat of losing one’s livelihood is at the top of the list of mental stress when it comes to safety. So even if your key stakeholders are in a good position with their financial safety right now, it’s important to check in with their perceptions.

For example, if an employee is worried about their job stability or possibly their partner has lost their job it will detract from their performance. Remember everyone’s comfort level or ‘safety zone’ is different. Some people are fine as long as they can pay their bills next month while others freak out if they have less than two years’ worth of living expenses saved up.  

Questions and conversation starters:

  • Are you ok, emotionally?
  • Are you confident or comfortable with your current financial situation?
  • Is there anything on your mind that worries you about [your role, the company, etc.]?
  • Do you feel like this company provides you with a safe and supportive culture?

Social Belonging

This need includes friendships, family, meaningful relationships of many kinds. This need has a large body of research behind it now. It’s shown through research to likely be of equivalent value to physiological needs in fact!

While this human need might seem like the last thing you should prioritize as a startup founder, the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Keeping a sense of cohesion around your mission with your key stakeholders will keep them connected and engaged. It’s always a good idea to remind your team as well as customers that we’re all in this together. (And be sure to really mean it.)

Questions and conversation starters:

  • Who would you say you’re closest to in this company? Why do you think you connect with them?
  • When was the last time you laughed with a colleague or coworker and what about?
  • Do you have somebody in the company that you feel comfortable reaching out to when you’re down or frustrated?
  • Do you feel confident to be your full self at this company?

Self-Esteem

This is a need for recognition, status, importance, and respect from others. It’s good to remember that most people have a need for stable self-respect and self-esteem. One of the challenges with this in times of high, and especially sustained, high-stress is a constant sense of urgency can mean less casual conversation. While we love to think awards, bonuses and big announcements are how to show respect and recognition, it’s often the little signs of appreciation that add up to the biggest impact.

Especially when we are working from home, it’s important to take a moment to thank somebody for their effort or insight.

Questions and conversation starters:

  • When was the last time you felt like you did an exceptional job at a task?
  • Have you received a compliment at work lately? When, what about?
  • Have you given a compliment at work lately? When, what about?
  • Do you feel recognized and appreciated for the work you do in this company?

Self-Actualization

Not everyone is driven by this need but oftentimes people who self-select to work in or with startups have a very strong desire to grow and achieve more than they did in the past. This need includes things such as utilizing and developing one’s abilities or talents as well as setting and pursuing goals.

In times of crisis, it’s common for the pre-existing goals to be reset. The prior sales targets, feature roadmap, or capital raise plans have to be sidelined or adapted to the new landscape. It’s important to check-in with your team’s take on all this. They need to understand this new direction will lead to fulfilling self-actualization and offer even bigger opportunities for growth.

Questions and conversation starters:

  • What’s one area of growth you value the most?
  • Do you feel like you’re able to leverage new things you learn and bring them to this role?
  • What would you like to excel at in the next few months? Is there anything we can do to support that effort?
  • Have you grown as a professional as much as you’d hoped to over the past few weeks/months/years?
  • Is there anything that would add value to this company’s mission that you’d like to learn?

Transcendence

This can be thought of like religion or spirituality but in an inward-facing form. While you might not think this would be relevant to employees, cofounders, customers or investors, it might turn out to be quite relevant in times of crisis. Your key stakeholders’ foundational values and beliefs are the bedrock of how they think and act under pressure. Acknowledging and respecting their transcendent needs is a powerful step in maintaining alignment between them and the mission of your startup.

While this layer of human needs can be very scary to approach in a professional setting, it’s far from impossible. Just remember to approach these conversations with respect and reverence for others’ differing worldviews.

Some questions or conversation starters:

  • Do you feel your personal values are in line with this company’s values and overarching mission? If no, how do they disconnect?
  • Do you have an internal support structure of some kind to use to get through these tough times? (ex. meditation, prayer, other some kind of secular ritual)
  • Do you believe what we are doing in this organization is still important and relevant at this time? If they say no, it’s important to be patient, ask why and listen to their answer with an open mind.
  • Do you feel like you are here, at this company, for a good reason?

While it is critical to make sure your financial, legal and tech systems are in order, none of these systems are possible without the people who look after them. As a startup founder, you always have to lead through the unknown. This is hard enough when the outside world is ‘business as usual’.

In a time of external crisis remember to make time to check in with your key stakeholders with their core human needs. Great startups require extraordinary people to drive the mission that goes for your talent, investors and even some of your early-adopter customers. You can only get the best out of people when they are at their best. A little bit of caring and attention can go a long way to mitigating disaster or even supporting people towards a breakthrough.

If you're interested in connecting with Ren Butler directly, please visit the Mentor Directory on the Member Portal or ask your Labs Manager for assistance.

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