How to Lead Your Team Through Tough Times

Posted 04.30.2024

Lead long enough and it’s eventually going to happen. Your team is going to come up against a tough run. Things were going great and then, suddenly, they’re not. The tough times could last for weeks, months, or even a year or more. The causes can be varied – competitive pressures, customer service challenges, a financial squeeze, uncontrollable externalities – and aren’t mutually exclusive. They can come all at once.

So, when your team is deep into dealing with the muck, what do you do? Here are some guidelines that work for my senior executive clients and their teams:

Balance Content with Connection – When a team is focused on shoveling through the muck, it can be all too easy for them to over index on the content of the work and forget about the connection that made them a team in the first place. If you want a team to get results, you must help it nurture its relationships. This post I wrote a few years ago on how to build meaningful connection offers specific ideas on how to do that.

Promote the We, Not the Me – Foster a sense of we’re all in this together (because you are) by making sure that your people ask each other for help in solving their challenges. It’s not all on any one person. Every person on the team should be making clear requests for help and, at the same time, be prepared to make meaningful offers on how they can help a teammate. 

No Secrets Allowed – No one on your team should be allowed to suffer in silence. Everyone is struggling with something. It’s way more stressful to try to hide what you’re struggling with than to just say it out loud and get it over with. People can only help when they know you need help and, better yet, when you clearly articulate the kind of help you need. (See above about making clear requests.)

Keep Your Perspective – This tough period you’re going through is exactly that, a period. It’s not forever; it’s now even if now seems to have been going on for a while. When you’re mired in the muck, it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t always like this and won’t always be like this. Your job as a leader is to help the team deal with the current reality while maintaining a grounded sense of hope about how the future will be better.

Have Some Fun – All work and no play makes for a very disconnected team. Create easy, no stress opportunities for your team to hang out together. Give them space to relax, tell stories, and laugh with each other. The connective neurochemicals like serotonin and oxytocin that those moments release in people will help them remember why they like each other and will also help them regain their perspective that not everything sucks.

Put Your Own Mask on First – Yeah, I know this metaphor has become a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. You can only help other people to the degree you take care of yourself first. Especially during this tough time, you, as the leader, control the weather. However you show up is going to be highly predictive of how your team shows up. Make sure your impact is what it needs to be by doubling down on the physical, mental, relational, and spiritual routines that enable you to show up at your best.

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