3 quick tips for leading through uncertain times


Some turbulence is inevitable throughout a career – acquisitions, layoffs, and restructuring trigger ripple effects: initiatives get shut down, reorganizations occur and team charters change. These periods offer varying proportions of pain and progress; thus the challenge lies in maximizing growth while minimizing discomfort. 

I repeatedly see multiple leaders selflessly sacrifice themselves for their teams; sadly, this approach usually leads to undesirable outcomes like:

This post offers three tips for leading through demanding times as well as answers to recurring questions.

1. Take care of yourself 

Everyone comes to the leader with questions, concerns, and worries; so they sponge it all up with little regard for themself. This sponge-it-up approach is a common mistake and a sure recipe for burnout; without proper self-care, the unrelenting pressures of uncertainty, stress, and unknowns eventually ablate all emotional safeguards. 

It is essential to care for the team, but it is nigh impossible to be an effective leader when you have nothing left. You can’t give what you do not have – when depleted, you risk making a bad situation worse – you might flare up, break down, or lash out uncontrollably.

If there is only one thing you take away from this post, this is it: consciously practice self-care. Track your mood and energy levels during difficult periods (try maintaining a leadership journal, or scheduling weekend firebreaks) and schedule activities that bring you joy (e.g., exercising, gardening, playing with kids). It is essential to rejuvenate and restore your emotional energy stocks.

Take care of yourself, and it’ll be easier to take care of others.

2. Build a support network

They say misery loves company :); it is imperative to leverage your community – they will help with discussing ideas, brainstorming approaches, and providing a listening ear. A problem shared is a problem halved; when you start discussing with your peers, one or more of these great outcomes might happen:

  • A peer might proffer a profound solution to your problem
  • Talking about your challenges is cathartic and makes you feel better
  • Articulating your issues helps you gain new insights and perspectives

Some tips:

  • Set up a meeting with your colleagues to discuss the challenge
  • Have a teams/slack/webex channel solely for trading ideas
  • Have an async document wherein folks share ideas
  • Be vulnerable while sharing your challenges
  • Actively check in on colleagues who might be having a tough time
  • Consider external communities too (keep it confidential though)

The beauty of community comes to play during tough times: check on your peers proactively and share ideas/updates publicly. A check-in might lift a peer’s mood, and a shared idea might solve a peer’s problem.

3. Take care of the team

These three tactics ameliorate the toll of uncertain periods on the team: clarifying, supporting, and energizing.

  1. Clarify: Proactively communicate with the team, schedule time to double-check, and be ready to have longer 1:1s. Being transparent and timely with information helps to earn trust, prevent rumours and reduce speculation.
  2. Support: Spend time with the team and get to know their worries so you can assuage concerns. It makes a difference when folks know their managers have their back and are always available and ready to support them.
  3. Energize: Aim for a quick win (anything really); this will foster camaraderie, bring some control back to the team, and deflect worry. It is easy to fall into doomy gloomy predictions if you have nothing to do.

The team needs to be supported through the turbulence – recruiters pounce once they smell blood in the water. You want to help your team pull through successfully; so create clarity, support the team, and generate energy.

Frequently Asked Questions during Crises

Here are some classes of questions that always seem to pop up; at the core of these questions are the universal human needs for comfort, certainty, and confidence.

1. I am anxious/worried/concerned; what if XYZ happens?

The possible combinations of what might happen are infinite, and quantifying all such possibilities is an unbounded problem. We can try to speculate from now till the year 2345 and still not run out of options – there are way too many variables and it ends up being a futile exercise.

Although it is impossible to predict all possible future outcomes, it is still useful to evaluate available options for a few potentially undesirable scenarios. This exercise usually reveals actionable steps for an otherwise intractable problem.

Here are some tips for doing this with a teammate:

  • Choose a potential scenario
  • Discuss how both of you feel about it
  • Brainstorm and evaluate what your response will be

Also, keep in mind that no one can take away the skills, knowledge, and achievements that the team acquires during these periods. And for the remaining set of anxiety-inducing future events, we’ll cross that bridge if we ever get to it. 

2. My friends are leaving / I know many people planning to quit; should I go too?

The attrition bandwagon effect comes with the territory during periods of uncertainty. We start second-guessing our decisions because we see many folks leaving. A career move is a big decision and requires a lot of deliberate planning and this is an opportune time to revise your career plans (if you do not have one already, then that is another issue altogether).

I am always committed to supporting your career aspirations – you come first. A few questions to understand your current state: 

  • Are you growing in your current role?
  • Do you have exciting challenges? 
  • Are you energized daily? 

If you are growing and have the right opportunities, why leave because of some uncertain future? If the answer is no, what brings you to the job every day? 

If you want to leap, do it because it helps you meet your aspirations rather than reacting to external events or because of your friends (will your friends move again if their new team runs into issues?). Try to filter out the noise and evaluate what the right next steps are for you – put yourself first.

3. Aren’t you anxious? What will you do if x happens?

I am human and have the same feelings. If you know someone who is not concerned, please introduce me to them so I can learn from them. I am super confident in the team and know we’ll pull through this together. 

Here is a great quote from Grant:

“Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Ulysses S Grant

4. I heard (insert rumour here) …

Uncertain periods are fertile breeding grounds for rumours; watch out for hearsay around promotions, rewards, layoffs, charters, etc. It is important to nip such reports in the bud before they grow wings and toxify the entire team.

Try openly discussing the topic in a safe manner with the team – that allows everyone to talk about the elephant in the room. Do not allow such news to fester and spread.

This transparent approach helped with rectifying a morale-dampening rumour on a past team. The befuddling allegation was that no one was going to get promoted again. So at the team meeting, I asked the director that exact question; she immediately dispelled the notion and that helped restore confidence.

5. When will it be over?

Looking for answers during periods of uncertainty can feel like groping in the dark. The most reliable signal is getting the all-clear message. Once the storm is over, someone usually sends broad announcements notifying everyone; this helps to restore calm and confidence.

Without seeing the message, I typically adopt a wait-and-see approach; that way I am ready if I have to participate in a reorg or business pivot.

6. So this is the last time, right?

We all want stability guarantees however, there is really no way to predict the future. Alas, “change is the only constant”. Things might stabilize in the short term but in the long run, something else will pop up. Being prepared to spot the early signals, weather the storm, and emerge unscathed is a better strategy.

Conclusion

Authentic leadership is forged in the crucible of crisis – it takes a lot more than skill to steer a ship through a storm; you’ll need courage, character, and conviction. 

It is pretty easy to fritter away productive hours worrying about uncertain (and usually unlikely) possible outcomes – don’t feed that monster. Instead, see the turbulence as a growth opportunity. Try out some theories and see what you learn and what techniques you can add to your leadership toolbox.

The three suggestions in order

  1. Take care of yourself
  2. Build a support network of peers
  3. Take care of the team

Most folks are tempted to go in the reverse order; that approach rarely works. Fortify yourself first, strengthen your support network, and then take care of the team.

How do you lead through uncertain times? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks to Ayuba for reviewing the early drafts of this post.

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