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How to Lead Your Staff Through Difficult Times

By Anne Houlihan

Challenges are a normal part of business—that’s a fact. And every company, whether it’s a start-up, a business in a high-growth phase, or even a long-standing established organization, will face both small and large hurdles every year. But no matter what your company faces—a slow economy, industry shifts, a merger, or even the death of a key executive—if you move through the challenge in a specific way, you will find opportunity in the adversity and come out stronger.

Think of a challenge as any type of “difference” in the way you do business or in your company structure that has an impact on your organization. Unfortunately, when some sort of “difference” occurs, typically company leaders and their staff grind to a halt and refuse to move forward. Why? Because they fear making a wrong move and further worsening the problem. And while most company leaders do eventually see the challenge through, they waste time in the process and make the journey harder than it needs to be.

Before your next company challenge becomes apparent (or if you are in the midst of a challenge right now), take note of the following four guidelines. Following them during any crisis will shave precious moments off your reaction period and will enable your company to move forward in record speed.

1. Recognize and allow for the natural reaction of the staff. Regardless of the challenge, you need to allow your staff to share their feelings. During this process, realize that everyone has different feelings and has a unique process for dealing with the situation at hand. For example, some people may be sad at the sudden adversity, some angry, and some will feel more driven than ever before. All of these feelings are normal, and no one right way to feel exists.

 As a leader, you need to listen to all these different feelings and acknowledge each person. Also, this is a time for “no pressure.” Therefore, embrace the fact that productivity will drop, at least for the immediate moment. Take the time to talk to people individually or in groups and create a space where people can be open. If you don’t create this space, people will feel unimportant and won’t want to move past this initial phase. Once you allow people to get their feelings out about the current challenge, they’ll start to move forward.

And don’t forget about yourself during this time. Even leaders need an outlet to vent and express their feelings. So make sure you have some sort of support system where you can air your concerns, such as family, friends, or peers. For a leader to be strong during these times, he or she needs to be emotionally fit.

2. Have open lines of communication. Communication is the key to making a difficult process more effective. During a challenge, you’ll have a lot of important information you need to relay to people. Look at the culture of your company and determine what is the best medium to disperse news. For some companies, town hall style meetings work well; others do better with smaller group meetings. Depending on your company, written communication may be in order, too, such as relaying news via a company newsletter or intranet.

The communication from the leader needs to be positive, proactive, and motivating, and it needs to be authentic. Your staff will know when you’re merely giving lip service. Also, reiterate the company’s vision and mission and get everyone on board with the necessary course of action.

Whatever you do, do not deny what is happening, and do not downplay the severity of the situation. People will be more willing to go the extra mile and do “whatever it takes” when they know the leader is being honest and straightforward.

3. Allow yourself to receive support from you staff. The hardest thing for most leaders to do is to receive support from their employees. Realize, though, that you’ll often see your staff at their best during a challenge. They’ll step up to the plate and take on more responsibility. So rather than think you need to do everything yourself and keep your feelings bottled up, delegate tasks and share your feelings with employees. As long as you’ve been honest with them, they’ll willingly and enthusiastically want to help any way they can. In fact, the more you allow them to “step up to the plate,” the more empowered they’ll be and the faster your company will move through the challenge.

4. Lead your organization beyond the challenge. If you’ve allowed people to express their feelings, communicated authentically, and relied on your staff for support, then you have no choice but to move forward quickly. In fact, stagnating in the challenge is virtually impossible now, because everyone, from the mail room clerks to the most senior executives, will feel that they’re important and that they have the power to make some serious change.

So at this point you need to identify the opportunities that are apparent. If you’ve listened to your staff, chances are they will have pointed out new ideas you may never have thought of. Use the company’s vision to guide your intended new path or plan, and continue to share the next steps with your entire team. No matter how limited you may feel your options are at this point, stay positive and proactive. You will push through to better times.

A New Path to Success: Unfortunately, many companies neglect these four steps. But when people don’t get a chance to air their feelings and don’t feel a strong sense of communication, they shut down and become paralyzed by fear. When this happens, everyone is in denial of the problem, and water cooler gossip takes center stage. Your company never has to be stuck in that scenario again!

Yes, there’s a lot of vulnerability when it comes to leading during difficult times; but in that vulnerability there is also a lot of growth. Your company can come out the other side of the challenge stronger and smarter than ever before. So follow these four steps during any challenge, big or small. When you do, you’re guaranteed to forge a new direction for your company—one that leads to newfound avenues of success and prosperity for all.

Read other articles and learn more about Anne Houlihan.

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