Leadership in Challenging Times

Leadership in Challenging Times

By Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD

Everyone is nervous, and rightfully so. The economic crisis and its resulting layoffs, consolidations, and organizational restructuring have people worried and distracted. Motivation is down. Absenteeism is up. Everyone wants to know, "What's going to happen to me?" Rumors are running wild. In the midst of all this uncertainty and fear, it's your job to help your team (or department or organization) stay engaged and focused on the business at hand. And for that, the soft skills of compassion, encouragement and motivation become crucial. People are looking to you for comfort and reassurance and, most of all, for leadership by example. Here are four recommendations to help you lead in challenging times

Take care of yourself.
In times of uncertainty people need leaders who are steady and reliable. You can’t be a stabilizing force for others unless you have developed a sense of personal stability. For that, you need to take good care of yourself.

Now is the time to compensate for the demands and pressures of the workplace by developing counterbalancing activities in other areas of your life. Engage in exercise programs and healthful eating habits, cultivate interests outside of the workplace (sports, hobbies, art, music, etc.) that are personally fulfilling, and develop/nurture external sources of emotional support.

Understand that the reasons for disruption may be logical (even inevitable), but your reaction to change is primarily emotional. Being aware of your own emotional responses and staying responsive to the emotional reactions of others is a prerequisite for effective leadership in chaotic times. So find a safe place to vent, to be heard, to mourn and then offer that kind of emotional safety net to others.

Communicate like crazy!
Whenever the situation is ambiguous or uncertain, you can expect the rumor mill to kick into high gear. A lack of formal communication only compounds the problem. Don't let the grapevine take over the communication function. You need to be the one to keep your people informed.

Respected change-managers are candid communicators who don't ignore or sugarcoat negativity. Instead, they help people make sense of it. The most motivational leaders are those trusted by their team to share knowledge and tell it like it is. Not everyone will appreciate such honesty, but few will tolerate anything less.

People are looking for honest answers to the following questions: Where is the organization heading? How secure is my job? What will the work priorities be for my team? What are the organization's new core competencies? What are the new job skills and accountabilities? How will we measure success? What are the consequences/rewards for the organization and for me?

Get out of your office and meet with employees face-to-face.
While technology has been a wonderful tool for reaching staff, when dealing with fear and uncertainty, it is not the time to rely on e-mail or intranets. People need to meet with you face-to-face. If they can’t see their leaders in person, staff wants to view the next best thing.

Consider the case with one association, where regular face-to-face staff meetings provided an ongoing opportunity to get up close and personal with the CEO. Time after time, employees would ask questions that had already been communicated in various publications and through dozens of e-mail announcements. After the sessions, the beleaguered CEO asked his communication manager, "How many times have we told them about that? Why don't they know that?" "Oh, they know it," the communications manager replied. "They just want to hear it from you. More importantly, they want to be able to look at you when you say it."

Harness the power of collaboration.
An organization’s competitiveness is a combination of the potential of its people, the quality of the information that people possess, and a willingness to share knowledge with others. The leadership mandate in challenging times is to link these components as tightly as possible.

But knowledge can only be volunteered. Leaders can’t force people to collaborate. It is all a matter of trust...


  • Trust in yourself and in the value of your contribution. To be a vital contributor, you must believe that your opinions and insights matter, and that your knowledge and experience (regardless of job title) are valuable to someone else. Unless you trust the innate wisdom and creativity of your ideas, there is little impetus to offer them to others.


  • Trust between team members. Even in good times, people are reluctant to share information with others when they don't know them well enough to evaluate their trustworthiness. Effective teams have learned that the time to get to know one another and to build valuable social capital develops the kinds of trusting relationships that pay off in increased collaboration and productivity.


  • Trust in leadership. Regardless of the overall corporate culture, individual executives and team leaders can create mini-cultures of trust within their own work group or staff. The best of these leaders do so by taking the time and effort necessary to make people feel valued. They emphasize people's strengths while encouraging the sharing of mistakes and lessons learned. They share the credit and the recognition, and, most of all, they encourage and respect everyone’s input.


  • Leadership's trust in others. People learn what is important to leadership by the actions they see modeled by those leaders. Too often, staff sees leadership saying that knowledge sharing is essential, but still regularly withholding information it deems unsuitable or inappropriate for employees. Employees also see leadership giving lip service encouragement to the idea of collaborative input, when what it's really seeking is a rubber stamp for decisions already made.

The most effective managers in challenging times are catalysts, creating synergy in their organizations. They delegate responsibility and authority. They encourage and protect their teams. They model attitudes and behaviors they want to see reflected back. Most of all, they realize that thriving in today's erratic business environment takes emotional literacy. It is no longer enough to appeal solely to people’s logic. Leaders also have to touch people’s hearts. The best of today’s leaders do so by revealing their own passion—for the future success of the organization and for the individuals in that organization who face the tough job of transforming themselves in order to collectively create that future.


Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is a professional speaker, executive coach, and the author of The Nonverbal Advantage-Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. She can be reached by phone at:  510-526-1727  510-526-1727 ; e-mail: cgoman@ckg.com; or through her website: www.ckg.com.