Growth through Pain (Cliché but 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’ll be in leadership roles. In bad times, all eyes are on the leader. How you behave will have a tremendous impact on your people. Keep that foremost in mind to help you provide the right attitudes, goals and vision in tough times.
There have been a few encouraging signs recently, but the economy of the past several years has been brutal and the recovery is likely to be slow. And some believe we could be in the eye of a double dip recession hurricane. Unemployment is still in double digits and people who have held onto jobs find themselves having to do more with less. The media pounds us with a steady diet of bad news and worst case scenarios. With all of these stressors affecting the people in our organizations, good leadership is more important than ever.
When people are under stress for sustained periods of time, predictable and bad things happen. They 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 different and are prone to reject it out of hand. As the stress continues, fatigue sets in and they become overly pessimistic about the future. Relationships suffer as the focus becomes increasingly one of staying afloat as a business. In fact, if these stress reactions are not checked, they can lead to a complete failure of the business.
But not all the changes caused by hard times are bad. With good leaders, businesses can increase their focus on critical components that drive their success. Higher standards and greater demands for efficiency lead companies to get better at assessing performance and refining business processes. The burning platform creates motivation for change that in good times may not exist. Things that were tolerated in the good years, that everyone knew were less than optimal, can no longer be accepted. In the presence of good leadership, the same pressures that cause people to attack each other can be redirected into more effective teamwork and opportunities for individual growth. Businesses that address this challenge effectively will emerge from the recession stronger than their competition and ready to take advantage of an improved economy.
Two Keys to Leadership Success
So what does it take to lead effectively in tough times? Research into leadership over the past 60 years, consistently shows that two broad dimensions describe effective leadership. The most effective leaders have strengths in both dimensions. The task management dimension has to do with the leader’s ability to set goals, organize efforts, direct activity, provide corrective feedback and set the general focus of efforts. The people management dimension recognizes the importance of communication, motivation and encouragement. The ability to set the emotional tone of the workplace and inspire greater effort from others is the hallmark of a transformational leader. Operating in a stressful environment actually tends to increase the leaders impact. People look to leaders more in hard times, partly as a product of the ambiguity that adversity creates.
The best leaders focus on both dimensions in managing their way through stress. From a task standpoint, the critical challenge is keeping people focused on things that are under their control. You may 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 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 how one individual’s job links to a broader corporate strategy, that person has a greater sense of purpose and utility. A sense of purpose has been shown to provide significant relief from the debilitating effects of stress. While many people find this sense of purpose in broader life aims, a business leader can help provide the same sense at work.
On the people side of the equation the key task of a leader is communication. Regular, honest, candid and consistent communication is key. The leader 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, we can more readily address them and share with them the information and insights that will 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 thank people. Emphasizing strengths, wins, and good news helps redirect people’s attention.
The constant barrage of stress, particularly over a long period of time, will take its toll on people. A cornerstone of great leadership is taking care of the troops. Of course listening and empathy are important, 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 the batteries. Framing the 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.
The Third Dimension
In addition to the task and people management dimensions, self management is crucial to effective leadership. This includes not only managing your behavior in ways conducive to more positive morale and action from your people, but helping them to 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 the leader to help his or her people shift from the mindset of the passive victim observing things from the sidelines to that of the athlete playing the game. Anything you can do to keep them focused on the fact that we always have choices and that, although we may not always control the final score, we do control how we play. If we play with integrity, stamina, optimism and intensity, we can often surprise ourselves. And even if we lose, we can be proud of our performance.
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”, etc., those are 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?; I wish it was different, but it’s not – what did you learn from it?; 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 can come from this tough situation. A key to great leadership in tough times is helping people see reality and helping them find appropriate ways to deal with it. Keep in mind the words of Carl Rogers – “The facts are always friendly.” And Fred Kofman, in his book Conscious Business provides great examples of shifting from the archetype of the victim to that of the player.
Of Course, It All Starts in the Mirror
A final point, that may be the most central one to effective leadership, is the recognition that you are the role model. You set the tone. If you are positive, confident and optimistic, your people are likely to behave the same way. If you display focus and determination, they are likely to follow suit. 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.”