Success Builders Inc. Article of The Month
November, 2001
Leading During Tough Times

By Barbara Poole, M.S., MCC

In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Although the historical context for his comments was different, his observations were right on the mark for the challenges currently facing the United States and our economy. This is definitely not a time for the faint of heart. And yet, it is a golden opportunity for all of us to examine the finesse with which we manage our people, our relationships, and our organizations during tough times.

The chain of events that began on September 11th has rocked the core of American business, and indeed, continues to reverberate throughout the world economy. Regardless of how large or small your company is, you have no doubt been impacted by the implications of an era of terrorism. And because the stakes are high and the enemy elusive, we’ve been plunged into a New World order, like it or not.

The true meaning of “forever changed” is just now beginning to sink into our minds and hearts. Although we knew better intellectually, many business people unconsciously wanted to view these circumstances as a temporary aberration. We’re now faced with creating new ways of doing business that will reinvent how we deal with people – our customers, vendors, investors, and perhaps most significantly, our employees.

Listen to the conversation that is taking place in your workplace these days. Chances are, although it may be about business, there’s an emotional tinge to it. In many ways, this is positive, and has resulted in a rebirth of national pride and patriotism. But there are also challenges to managing during emotional times that represent a wake-up call for leadership. How we respond to a number of critical factors now has the potential to make or break a business. Consider the following:

1. Whatever personality styles people characteristically demonstrate, they will be exaggerated during times of stress. This means that those people who are driver types will become even more aggressive and may be apt to behave in a volatile manner. Likewise, those individuals who have high needs for security and predictability will feel even more vulnerable than normal. Take these tendencies into consideration in managing to individual needs.

2. There are predictable stages of grieving that people will go through, and they will do so at different rates. Expect to see folks moving through periods of denial, anger, and sadness, and perhaps back and forth among these stages. While this is perfectly normal, and in fact, necessary, be alert to extremes that might suggest the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, and encourage employees to seek appropriate assistance.

3. Effective listening and communication skills are more critical now than ever. As a general rule, people need to hear more, be heard more, and have plenty of room for dialogue during times of stress. Sometimes this equates to what might be viewed as “unproductive time” during more normal circumstances. Resist the temptation to usher people back to their routines prematurely when a piece of news breaks. On the other hand, be cautious of the fine balance that can otherwise lead to unhealthy preoccupation with factors beyond our control.

4. Have a crisis plan in place. This is not just good advice for airports and obvious security-risk environments. Regardless of what business you’re in, or how large or small, you need to have a contingency plan in place that people know and understand. Make sure it spells out who does what and how if disaster strikes.

5. Rebuilding trust and resilience are critical. Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion that can polarize and paralyze people. This is an appropriate time to reaffirm the values and foundation on which your business is built and to foster discussion around what really matters. It’s also a time to remind your employees that different doesn’t imply dangerous, so as to quell the tide of paranoia that can otherwise develop like wildfire.

Leading during emotional times can be a challenge, but it can also be an opportunity to strengthen the psychological contract you have with your employees. Take the time to understand their very real and human needs, and manage to them accordingly. In the long run, it will help your business and your community thrive, not just survive.

©Barbara Poole, Success Builders, Inc., 2001

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