Over the course of my career, whether working with individuals, small businesses, or global companies, I’ve experienced my fair share of challenges and have had to also help others through difficult times. Out of everything I’ve learned, when it comes to leading effectively during uncertain times, I keep coming back to these five principles:
1. Put people first
Putting people above the bottom line is crucial for establishing healthy relationships with employees and building trust. We are all busy, but meeting with team members individually to check in and provide support is well worth the time. I know a manager who once had the difficult job of laying someone off. He didn’t want to do it, of course, but he had to. When he delivered the news, the employee began crying. Instead of acting uncomfortably, the manger paused and asked her if the job she had was one she truly loved. As it turns out, it wasn’t. They had a long conversation about what she was passionate about and discussed possibilities for how she could pursue a job she really enjoyed. He used his experience to help her reflect on what she wanted to do. He spoke with her years later, and she was filled with excitement as she shared how his guidance helped her. She was happy and had a job she loved. I think this shows that as leaders, we can put people first and strive to be a partner in our team members’ success, not just at our organization but as part of their overall career growth.
2. Communicate honestly and often
Some managers tend to avoid communicating when times are bad, but that’s exactly when the team needs to hear from their leaders most. When communicating with employees, be direct and transparent and share information as it is becomes available. Lack of communication, especially when an organization is undergoing change, will only lead to frustrations and gossip. I once worked with a client who decided to change their performance review policy without notifying employees. People were unaware of the new criteria, so they didn’t know that their performance score could be negatively affected. When they had their meeting and received a lower score, they were understandably upset. Leadership knew the team would disagree with the changes, and instead of communicating clearly and offering an opportunity to provide feedback, they handled the situation in a way that damaged trust and morale. This demonstrates that not only is honest communication best from the start, but continued and frequent communication is needed to keep everyone aligned. Importantly, providing a way for the team to share feedback shows employees that we are listening and that we care about how small and big decisions affect people on an individual level.
3. Create a sense of togetherness
We can only be successful as a team if we work together and if everyone takes ownership of their roles. It’s natural that motivation might waver during uncertain times, but we can inspire our team by focusing on the importance of everyone’s position and coming up with group goals that encourage teamwork and instill a sense of togetherness. When we look to the future as a team, everyone is more likely to feel empowered to take responsibility for their part. This reminds me of a story my friend told me recently. She’s a small business owner, and during the pandemic, she lost a lot of clients and many of her contracts were put on hold. The business was suffering, but she didn’t want to lay off any employees. She brought the whole team together and had an honest talk with them to share the reality of the situation and to present two options of how they could move forward: She would either have to let some team members go, or everyone, including herself, could agree to take a 20 percent pay cut with the commitment that everyone would keep their jobs and would receive their normal salary after the pandemic was over and the business recovered. The team agreed to the second option, and everyone kept their jobs. It’s a really great example that demonstrates how a team will come together and take ownership of their role when they see that their company treats them as more than a number. Their leader came to them with an alternative and showed that she truly valued them and didn’t want to make any cuts. As a result, the team was motivated to come together to not only keep their jobs but to support their co-workers and help the business survive.
4. Follow up on promises
In good times and bad, we need to show our employees, our suppliers, and our customers that we are committed to following up on our promises. How we react when things are difficult will reveal our priorities and impact our business relationships. The COVID-19 pandemic challenged many companies to deliver on their promises and remain consistent with their brand values. Airlines in particular were forced to adapt to new procedures and protocols, and some did more than others. Airline companies always say that safety is a priority, and during the pandemic, that commitment took on a new meaning – to protect passengers’ health. There were some circumstances where I had to travel and was incredibly nervous to do so. When I browsed different airlines, it became obvious to me that some were remaining true to their brand promise of safety and others were not. Some companies went above and beyond from extra cleaning to keeping the middle seat open. Others couldn’t wait to pack the plane full of people. That really affected my brand loyalty because when things go wrong, I want to support the company that keeps their promises and puts me, as a customer, first. If we want our customers to come to us and not our competitors, we have to deliver on our commitments, even in turbulent times.
5. Take care of yourself
Self-care has been a really popular topic recently and for good reason. We cannot help others if we are not taking care of ourselves, and we cannot be effective leaders if we don’t prioritize balance. If we neglect sleep, eating well, exercise, mindfulness, and all of those things that support our emotional and physical health, we will easily run out of energy to handle challenges and lead our teams effectively. There was a time in my career where I put work above everything, including my health. I was working on a high visibility project that was extremely stressful; it was particularly challenging because I didn’t agree with some of the higher-level decisions, so I was being tested in many ways – personally and professionally. I neglected my personal health so much that I actually ended up in the hospital for three days, and guess what? I didn’t even get to complete the project. My priority was work, but ignoring my needs as a person meant that I wasn’t able to be a good leader. As leaders, we set an example for our team. If we are able to put our best foot forward and remain motivated, our employees will take inspiration from that. If we are drained and have a negative outlook, the team will pick up on this, and it will affect morale and the tone of the organization.
What about you? What tips have helped you to continue to forge ahead?
Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.