Coach Me: How Can I Lead a Team Through Crisis?

work crisis

In the last month, my team has been reorganized and cut by 25 percent as part of overall company layoffs. My staff members are, understandably, freaking out and wondering if more cuts are coming. It’s more important than ever that we keep productivity up, but how do I ensure we keep work moving forward while keeping morale up as well? — Kate, Ohio 
There are a few keys to managing when your team is being torn apart around you — and they all start with recognizing that this isn’t business as usual.

1. Be as transparent as you can. The No. 1 thing you can do in this situation is to be open and candid. Too often, companies try to hold information close and carefully control what gets out, but that leads to two bad outcomes: First, employees can tell they’re being left in the dark, and the natural anxiety of the situation turns into real alarm. Second, information gets out anyway. And because it’s coming out through unofficial channels, it gets mangled in the telling and/or comes without the sense of perspective that could have been attached had it been addressed more openly.
If you’re open and candid with employees about the company’s situation, worries and future plans, you can avoid the worst of that and often build good will. So, talk to people about what’s going on and why, and what it means for them.
2. Be visible. Don’t hide in your office — even if on some days you’d like nothing more. Your team needs to see you right now. That doesn’t mean you need to show false bravado; in fact, to the contrary, what people will generally want is to see you being authentic. You’re managing in a time of crisis here, and it’s not all that different than being the authority figure at a funeral. Talk with people, be empathetic and acknowledge that what’s happening is tough.
3. Give special attention to your top performers. Your team just received a clear and unmistakable signal that their jobs might not be as secure as they’d previously thought, and many are going to be looking around at other prospects. Your top performers are the ones who are most likely to find new jobs quickly. So if you want to keep them, have direct conversations with them about their futures on your team.
4. Lead by example. You’re on a stage right now, and staff members are going to take a lot of cues from you. If you seem freaked out, pessimistic, distant or distracted, your team is likely to follow suit. But if you show authentic concern and empathy while also focusing on moving work forward, you’ll provide a model of “how we get through this” to people who are probably struggling to figure that out.
That might mean taking time to talk with people individually and as a group about their concerns, as well as cutting people a bit of slack if they’re having trouble being as focused as usual. But continue to lay out clear goals for the coming quarter and year and make sure everyone is on the same page about the plans to achieve those goals.
5. Be a really good manager. Now’s the time to pay special attention to the things that are always important, but that plenty of us don’t get right every day — like making sure people feel valued, get recognized for good work, have clear goals and have the resources they need to do their jobs. This stuff always matters, but it can be the glue that holds your staff together when other pieces of their work world have just been destabilized.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.

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