Leaders typically prefer operating in predictable markets, relying on predictable data, generating predictable results, and overseeing consistently performing teams. They likely have plans, or at least considerations, for maneuvering through the stressful scenarios they’ve anticipated. However, these plans may not extend to the current global economic crisis that has arisen without warning.
Running a business would be simpler if leaders and their teams could maintain a comfortable and predictable existence. Even average unexpected challenges are capable of generating enough stress to fracture a team and derail and organization.
Choosing how to lead teams through stressful periods is like tossing a coin with two distinct sides. One side creates the perception of a calm, compassionate, capable executive. The opposite side can unintentionally create the perception of a panicked, unsure, reactionary executive. Like many leaders, successful interrogators build their careers on their ability to establish unexpected bonds with people under stressful conditions. Below is an exploration of both sides of the coin.
First, the dangerous side:
1. Don’t make it about you.
Employees need leaders who care about them, not those looking for the spotlight. Oftentimes, leaders think they are demonstrating empathy by talking about how hard a situation is for them, the sacrifices they’ve made, or how many hours they’ve spent working on a solution. Traditionally, employees feel that executives can’t truly understand the struggles employees experience. Employees who are worried about feeding their family, paying their bills, and being able to afford medication aren’t concerned with the troubles of people who they perceive to be in far better positions.
I was recently contacted by a client who was asking for help talking to his CEO. Apparently this CEO, in an attempt to establish unity with his employees, spent five full minutes talking about how hard this situation was on him and his family and how emotionally impacted they were. He then declared to the group that he would stop taking a salary as he focused his attention on saving the organization. His intentions were likely good, but his execution was poor and his statement only served to erode the trust his team previously held for him.
2. Avoid creating the perception that you don’t care.
Silence kills. When employees don’t consistently hear from their leaders they begin to doubt that problems can be solved, negative thoughts invade their internal monologue, and the worst-case scenario quickly feels real for them. Leaders may choose to hold off on communicating with their employees until they have more information, they have perfected their message, or until they have more positive information to share. They may not consider that not communicating can create the impression that they are hiding something. The longer the periods of silence last between communications the more employees assume the worst.
I recently asked an executive how often he was in contact with his team. His answer was, “Only when I need to.” When I asked him why he said, “I want to give them their space and I don’t have any answers right now. I don’t want them to press me for what I don’t know.” This fear of getting questions he didn’t want to answer, only insured that he would receive even more difficult questions when he finally did reach out to his team.
3. Don’t create unnecessary problems.
Ambiguity increases uncertainty, uncertainty escalates stress, and stress can quickly narrow a leader’s focus down to the problems. These problems can quickly multiply when leaders don’t identify the necessary objectives, ask too many hypothetical questions, try to solve too many problems simultaneously, request too many opinions that cloud the decision-making process, or continuously share data or stories that don’t impact their situation.
One of the most common ways leaders create unnecessary problems is by bouncing from priority to priority. When leaders give contradictory orders, failing to understand their team’s priorities, and losing their cool, they create more confusion, increase stress, decrease trust, and subvert problem-solving.
Now the productive side of the coin...
4. Frame all communications around the needs and concerns of your audience.
People react to what they hear first. Then they listen for information that confirms what they already believe. Leaders can increase the impact of their messages when they confirm their understanding of the issues, fears, and goals their employees are dealing with. This framing technique allows them to build rapport, capture their employees’ attention, limit destructive internal monologues, and position their updates (both good and bad) around what is most important to their employees.
As an example, cutting employee pay to save the business is a difficult and often unpopular decision. Framing the message properly can mean the difference between widespread commitment and resistance: “Before deciding where we were going to save money, we made it clear that our first priority was to keep everyone employed well beyond this crisis. Every alternative we discussed was weighed against this goal. In the end, the smallest sacrifice we felt comfortable asking the entire organization to make that would ensure we all remain employed is to take one week of unpaid leave."
5. Adhere to a communication schedule.
People perceive how we communicate with them as evidence for how much we respect them. As a result, employees have increased confidence in their leaders when there is a consistent and predictable communication process in place. This demonstrates that leaders are taking time out of their day to share what they little they may know, illustrate the process they are following, and check in on their employees’ wellbeing. The greater the employees’ stress levels, the more important it is to have regular communication with their leadership team, especially when there aren’t any significant updates. Just taking the time to ask “How are you?” makes all the difference.
While every organization and team is different, consistency and variation are key. Leaders need to ask themselves what their employees' most likely concerns are. Once this is clear, they can determine how often to reach out, what modes of communication to use, and how to structure the conversation.
6. Focus on solutions, opportunities, and processes.
Life is a series of solvable problems. We can choose to focus on the problem, or we can choose to focus on the solution. Leaders should be careful to focus on people and information that will help them move forward. Whenever possible, there are three steps they should follow before engaging in the typical problem-solving process.
Once these questions have been answered, leadership can begin solving their problems.
Uncertainty is the only certainty. Organizations put leaders in place because they trust them to be a stable hand and steady mind during times of crisis. Employees will look to quickly judge these qualities as soon as they sense the situation deteriorating.
Michael Reddington, CFI is a certified forensic interviewer and the President of InQuasive, Inc., a company that integrates the key components of effective non-confrontational interview techniques with current business research for executives. Using his background in forensics, and his understanding of human behavior through interrogation, Reddington teaches businesses to use the truth to their advantage.
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