Difficult times, by definition are never easy. Uncertainty, stress, tensions and emotions run high, making it more difficult to focus and to know how to act. These consequences amplify as difficult times affect an entire company, industry, or society at large. Here are 6 things you can do to effectively lead during difficult times.
1. Remember you act as a multiplier
A leadership role, by its nature, is a multiplier role. What you do and what you say have greater impact. People mirror your behaviours, or repeat your words. In difficult times, people will seek your guidance even more. This doesn’t mean acting like someone you are not. Good leaders are authentic leaders but good leaders also try to role model desired behaviours. They know their actions or words multiply.
2. Take regular breaks
Difficult times increase the pressure and number of emergencies a leader must deal with. This leads to less time to pause or a double- or triple- booked calendar. The less time a leader has, the they react, or act without intention. In his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow“, Daniel Kahneman, classifies this reactive behaviour as System 1 thinking. Systems 1 thinking saves energy through making decisions instinctively. Unfortunately System 1 thinking is also the most biased thinking and least suitable for complex situations. Difficult times amplify the time you spend on System 1 thinking. Emergencies, stress, and tension keep leaders trapped in this mode.
Taking regular breaks gives us an opportunity to transition to System 2 thinking. This style of thinking is more deliberate and thoughtful. It’s particularly useful when a decision has dire or irreversible consequences. Breaks give you a chance to restore energy reserves, explore different perspectives and reach a more robust decision.
3. Boost psychological safety
The Google study on high-performing teams, Project Aristotle, found 5 key characteristics. Of these 5, the most important was psychological safety. Psychological safety describes how easy it is for team members to contribute. Put differently, “Do team members feel safe suggesting ideas or taking actions without negative repercussions?” It is your responsibility as a leader to foster psychological safety.
During difficult times uncertainty and System 1 thinking increases. Team members may snap at each other because of the external context, not because they dislike each other. Counteract these effects by actively boosting psychological safety. For example, add inclusive language and behaviour into your team’s working agreement (also called Team Charter, Ways of Working, etc). Don’t have a working agreement? Build one with the team but ensure you focus on inclusion. Inclusion is a key ingredient for psychological safety.
Share examples of what is inclusive (“e.g. everyone”) and exclusive language (“e.g. guys”) looks like. Not sure? Read this article, “An Incomplete Guide to Inclusive Language for Startups and Tech“. Call out behaviours that invoke fear or resentment. Teach people how to express their opinions or disagreement (e.g. “Design X may not work because of Y”) without attacking people (e.g. “Who’s the dummy that proposed that?!”). Make it clear which behaviour is unacceptable. Silently accepting behaviour is the same as giving permission.
4. Repeat the purpose continually
What is the difference between a group and a team? A group is a collection of people. A team is a collection of people working towards a common purpose. In difficult times, the chaos or noise distracts people from the purpose. People forget about why they are working as a team, or why they are doing what they do.
Light a beacon in the haze of trouble. Remind people what the team is trying to achieve. A common purpose and a worthy goal offers team members a positive alternative to focus on. Adding value and making steps towards a purpose distract from events out of the team’s control. Celebrate small milestones as the team progresses and use those opportunities to restate the purpose. Don’t just start with why, continue to repeat it.
4. Create space to talk
Team members feel more emotional during difficult times. Space to talk provides an opportunity to relieve some of the pressure. Most people want to feel listened to but you need to create a space for it. Consider running a “fireside” chat, or a virtual channel where people can share what’s on their mind. When opening a team meeting, consider using a “check-in” to explore how people are feeling. It might be as simple as asking people to use one word to describe how they are feeling. Team members might discover that others share the same feeling and provide support to one another.
Your role isn’t to play therapist for your team. But it’s impossible to totally separate emotions from the workplace. This separation is even harder during difficult times. People are not robots after all.
5. Focus on what you and your team can control
During difficult times everyone feels overwhelmed and helpless. To counteract this, define what you and your team can control or influence. You always control how and what you communicate, even when you can’t control how others react. Your team can control what they work on, how they work on it and the quality of the work they produce. Each person can also control how they communicate with another person. You can influence this by providing timely feedback.
For everything else, outside of your control or influence, remain hopeful. Find ways to influence external forces or events, but recognise where you currently have limits.
6. Proactively support your minority groups
The big difference between equality and equity means minorities will be disproportionately affected in difficult times. This means minority team members have less energy and attention to focus on day-to-day work. Reach out to them individually. Ask what they need and actively find ways to support them. Invest your time to offer some starting options. Connect them with an internal/external support group where they can discuss topics more openly.
Although there is no “right” way to lead during difficult times, there are certainly “less effective” ones. Doing nothing is one such example. Constantly reacting is another. As a good leader, you know you need to act, but are maybe unsure how to act. These 6 actions have worked time and time again for me in the past. I hope they prove useful to you too.