Adam has been pleased with his progress and success in a variety of leadership roles over the past few years. His even temperament and low key manner have served him well in the past and, until recently, he thought that they would be of even more value as the company began to encounter rough sledding. There are strong new competitors, rumors of cutbacks, and there was even talk of a potential merger. People are uncertain and consequently are having a hard time focusing on their jobs. He wants to rally the troops, but is becoming unsure about his particular leadership style in this environment. It was a surprise to him when one of his peers confronted him recently with the news that people see him as detached or uninvolved. He knows that’s far from the truth, but he doesn’t want to come off as insincere or theatrical just to try to get a rise out of his people. The company hasn’t been through such tough times since well before he joined, and everyone’s feeling the strain. Now that his colleague has made it clear he thinks Adam needs to show more emotion, he’s questioning himself. He wants to bring stability to the situation, but it seems that at least some people want a more vocal, emotional approach from their leaders. Perhaps his style isn’t what these times need?
A good leader helps people overcome adversity
Growth through pain is a cliché, but it’s also true. It’s a tough fact of life that we don’t learn much about ourselves or our character in good times. We can’t fully discover our strengths and shortcomings without being tested by adversity. How we deal with it, or how we learn to deal with it, is central to who we are – and how credible we can be in leadership roles. In bad times, all eyes are on the leader. How you behave has a tremendous impact on your people. The best thing the captain can do in stormy seas is keep the tiller steady – unless, of course, the ship is headed towards the rocks.
When people are under prolonged periods of stress and strain, predictable and bad things happen. They can become increasingly wary, and tend to interpret each new sign as an indication of more bad things to come. Negative emotions run high and people are more likely to bark at each other and openly display frustration. They become skeptical of the new and the different, and are prone to reject it out of hand. As the stress continues, fatigue sets in and they become even more pessimistic about the future. Relationships suffer as the focus becomes one of staying afloat as a business. Steadiness and insightful coaching are crucial to survival and success in tough times. A stressful environment increases the leader’s potential impact. People look to leaders more in hard times, which is partly a product of the ambiguity that adversity creates.
Focusing on the right things
A critical coaching challenge in uncertain times is to keep people focused on things that are under their control. You might not be able to affect what happens in the stock market, but you sure can reach out to your customers and provide great service. This sense of control helps people manage their stress and allows them to experience small wins that have a buffering effect. It is critical that the leader or coach provide a broader vision of the future, and a sense of direction and purpose. By linking today’s actions to a better future, people gain a sense of perspective. By pointing out to an employee how their individual job links to a broader corporate strategy, you give that person a greater sense of purpose and utility. And that provides significant relief from the debilitating effects of stress.
On the people side of the equation, the key responsibility of a leader or coach is communication. Regular, honest, candid, and consistent communication is key. You must be seen as a reliable source of information, even if it means admitting you don’t know. Equally important is listening. By understanding people’s concerns, leaders can more readily address them and share with them the information and insights that help reduce misunderstandings and fight negative rumors. In tough times, it is critically important to try to create opportunities for positive emotion. While a sense of humor helps, it is also important to celebrate wins, find ways to have fun, and to thank people. Emphasizing strengths, wins, and good news helps redirect people’s attention.
A cornerstone of great leadership is taking care of the troops. Listening and empathy are important, of course, but you also need to be attuned to signs of burnout. Because much is expected of people in a tough economy, they need to find ways to recharge their batteries. Framing challenges people face as developmental opportunities can often help redefine their emotional experience. While few people would wish to go through boot camp again, most recognize the benefit of that challenge. Seeing current circumstances as being tested in the fire tends to make us more resilient. Remember the words of Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Naturally, managing the task and managing your people are essential to success in any circumstances; but in tough times, the self-management dimension is critical. You’re in the spotlight even more now. You set the tone. If you are positive, confident, and optimistic, your people are likely to behave in the same way. If you display focus and determination, they are likely to follow suit. In stressful circumstances, you need to manage your behavior to bring about greater optimism and more effective action from your people, and help them manage their own attitudes and behaviors towards appropriate outcomes.
It’s natural for people to feel powerless and victimized in tough times, so it is important for leaders to help their people shift from the mindset of the passive victim observing things from the sidelines to that of the athlete playing the game. You must keep them focused on the fact that there are always choices available, and that, although the final score cannot always be controlled, they do have control over how they play the game. If we consistently play with integrity, stamina, optimism, and intensity, we usually surprise ourselves. Even if we lose, we can be proud of our performance. Remember, just as panic and despair are infectious, so are energy and enthusiasm. As you look around your organization, remember the words of Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
One way to keep people focused on positive action is not to slip into the trap of automatic sympathy. While it makes a person in victim mode feel good to hear such things as, “That’s terrible, you must feel awful, they should fix it, poor baby,” and other messages of consolation, those are precisely the wrong messages. They imply that the power is out there, with those bad people who are doing you wrong, with that evil competitor or that rotten economy.
A more effective way to get and keep the right focus is with statements such as, “Yes, that’s tough – what are you going to do about it?” or, “I wish it was different, but it’s not – what did you learn from it?” and “I understand you’re angry – so how will you avoid this in the future?” These responses imply that the power remains with the individual and that some positive outcome can arise from a tough situation. A key to great leadership in tough times is to help people see reality, and to help them find appropriate ways to deal with it. Keep in mind the words of Carl Rogers: “The facts are always friendly.”
Fred Kofman, in his book Conscious Business, provides great examples of shifting from the archetype of the victim/observer to that of the athlete/player.
Leaders often need to help their players reframe their current situations, and see things in a different light. This is important: the conditions that conspire to present you with your current set of choices are not always under your control, but the way you respond to them is. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning describes the experiences that helped him develop these insights, and illustrates this concept quite effectively. You can’t imagine much worse circumstances than Auschwitz, where the Nazis had the power over everything in your life, including whether or not you get to keep it. Some people, however, including Frankl, were able to survive their ordeals in the death camps.
Being a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, Frankl was intrigued by the puzzle of what makes some people resilient and what causes others in similar life-threatening circumstances to succumb. His observation was that, although people in the camps were deprived of choice in all aspects of their lives, those who retained the human dignity of choosing how to respond were more likely to survive. Those who gave up and acted as if they had no control, no choices, were more likely to die. This was also illustrated in studies of learned helplessness conducted by Martin Seligman, one of the primary developers of the emerging field of Positive Psychology.
Dogs that were subject to shocks over which they had no control eventually gave up and stopped trying to escape. Even when the doors to their cages were left open, they would lie down and passively accept the shock rather than try to get out. They could escape the shock simply by walking through the open door, but their previous training had not provided them that frame of reference.
Fortunately, most of us never have to endure such traumatic experiences; but we still whine and complain. It’s our nature. Still, we can transcend our nature at times by shifting our frame of reference, realizing that we in fact do have more control than we think, and changing the way we act. Similarly, when we change how we think (often leading to the insight that we in fact do have options), we’re preparing to change how we respond and behave. The clear lesson of these results and observations is this: how we choose to respond to a situation allows us to transcend even the worst of circumstances.
The right changes in behavior enable us to make things better. We can choose to see things differently as we become more aware of alternatives and we can consequently choose to act differently as we develop the courage to do so.
Thought questions for bad times
How do you begin? If you’re in a bad situation, start with a question: “What am I going to do to make things better?” This implies analyzing your circumstances with an eye towards seeing what can be improved. As you do this, you may begin to see alternatives you might not have considered. This is when you can see opportunities to act differently. You might not have caused your situation, but you always have the choice about how to respond to it. You have more control than you realize. It sounds simplistic, but sometimes the simple solutions are the best. To help your people shift their thinking from being the victim to becoming an active participant, try these questions:
• What will you do to make your life better?
• When will you do it?
• How will you measure your success?
• How long before you know whether it’s working?
• What will you do if it’s not working?
When people are under stress, they look to leaders for information, direction, and support. If you can help people realize they have more control than they realize, they will be more effective. Re-framing their current negative situation to help them focus on the things that are under their control, and showing them they can find things they can do, will help them get through.