Many leaders are forced to make difficult decisions that negatively affect people they care about. No one likes to lay people off or cut back resources, creating more work and stress. All of this comes at a great emotional cost.
It’s often said that true leaders emerge during times of crisis. Company leaders have a lot riding on how they respond. These days all eyes are on them. Everything they do and say is scrutinized. Workers are paying attention to every nuance trying to figure out “what’s really going on.”
Unfortunately, few company leaders are actually communicating. A recent national survey showed that 71 percent of those surveyed felt that their company’s leadership should be communicating more about current economic problems, and 54 percent have not heard from company leaders at all on the impact of the financial crisis on their company.
American workers are naturally feeling unsure and anxious during this economic downturn. We look to our workplace leaders for cues about how we should be responding. Silence is a response — but not an effective one.
What can leaders do?
- Communicate frequently with the 3 C’s: clearly, credibly and candidly. During a crisis, communication is more important than ever. Ambiguity and uncertainty equate to stress. If you go silent, people will make up their own stories about what’s really going on with you and the company. Rumors often generate negativity and fan the flames of fear and anxiety.
- Keep connected. Manage by walking around. You can’t afford during times like these not to know what’s really going on. Be diligent in seeking out information, even the bad news. It’s a mistake during a crisis to hide out in your office with the door closed. Nervous followers need comfort and reassurance from their leaders. Be visible and keep checking in with all levels of staff to see how people are doing.
- Ask yourself, “What kind of emotional wake do I want to leave behind me today?” The emotions of a leader are highly contagious, so work hard to manage your own anxiety. No one will affect the overall workplace mood and morale more than a senior leader. Be mindful that any negative comments or tone will carry impact. If you show up like a cat on a hot tin roof, your anxiety will spread like a wildfire. Manage your own anxiety by developing a “self-soothing strategy” you can rely on. Find someone you can vent to safely, such as a trusted outside adviser or coach who also can offer an objective perspective.
- Pay attention to task and people; be alert to their emotions. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking all is well or that your people will simply need to “deal with it.” Develop a proactive plan to recognize, identify and deal with current challenges and emotions in the workplace. Set time aside in team meetings to allow people to vent and talk about their anxieties and challenges. Listen and acknowledge what you hear them saying.
- Be the anchor in the storm; display calm confidence and optimism. Model what you want from your team. This is your golden opportunity to truly lead by example and live your values.
- Keep your team focused. Identify the single most important priority goal that everyone needs to commit to in order to weather the storm. Make sure everyone understands it and is clear what their part will be — their action item(s) in helping the team achieve it. Let them know there will be no tolerance for the “it’s not my job” syndrome for this goal! Create a measurable scoreboard for the goal, review it at every team meeting and recognize/celebrate critical milestones.
- Engage hearts and minds (particularly your top performers’) to increase productivity. Facilitate a session to get all hands on deck. Bring the team or company together to brainstorm creative solutions for the game plan. Focus on core strengths and values, company vision and how to keep customer confidence high.
- Stay the course. Reinforce the plan with follow-up, recognition, redefining expectations and adequate resource support for weathering the storm. Retaining your top talent during slow growth will be challenging — they get restless. Work to keep them engaged, well supported and rewarded. On that note, everyone’s extra effort should be noted and recognized.