leading through trying times

Regardless what side of the aisle you find yourself on, I think we can all agree that the past few weeks since the inauguration have been tumultuous. No one can predict what happens next. This uncertainty has many people nervous about the future.

And that uncertainty is affecting my clients.

Several have experienced drops in business – especially those who sell products or services that could be put off for a few months. For some of these, this drop in business has necessitated layoffs they weren’t anticipating. Others, specifically my clients with government contracts, have put a hiring freeze in place. Hiring freeze’s that ensure current employees are going to be overworked in the coming weeks.

Frustration, angst and uncertainty abound and likely will for several more weeks….or longer.

One of my clients said to me that it must make for good business times for me – and while it does, this is never how I like to obtain clients – when they are in turmoil. One conversation I’ve had several times in the last few weeks centers around how to lead during these times. One client asked it this way:

“I want to be able to reassure my remaining employees that we are ok. I want to tell them that the business is going through a down season and that we will pull through in a few weeks, but the reality is I’m not sure of that. There is no rhyme or reason to what’s happening and I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen in the future or if the business will even be here next year. How do I lead through that?”

It’s a hard line to walk. As a leader you want to be encouraging and reassure your employees that whatever the business is experiencing today is a short term set back that will be overcome. You also want to be honest and the truth of the matter is, you aren’t sure if overcoming is reality. You don’t want to scare employees to the point that they all dust off their resumes, but you also don’t want to leave them without a job unexpectedly. You have no idea if your thoughts of gloom and doom are just dramatic over-reactions or warranted and certainly don’t want to pass that on to employees.

I think it’s important to realize during these times that employees are not stupid. They know what is going on. As someone who spends a good amount of time recruiting, I can tell you that I hear from candidates every day who say they are open to new opportunities because they can “see the writing on the wall” with their current company and feel like they will be out of a job soon anyway. Employees know when business is declining and if they don’t have good feelings about how that decline is being handled, they are likely to start shopping. So the first thing not to do is act like everything is fine.

Regardless of what you do or how you do it, there are going to be employees who jump ship. There are however, always going to be employees (if you’ve led them right) with some sense of loyalty. It’s these employees you want to focus on. Encourage questions and answer them as honestly as you can without jeopardizing the business or creating a frenzy. Share the state of the business and what actions are being taken to overcome. It’s ok for leaders to not have all the answers. These times are often times when showing a little vulnerability will go a long way with employees. They expect you to lead. They expect you to fight. They don’t expect you to have all the answers right away. They don’t expect you to not be worried.

So while there may not be a one size fits all answer to how to lead through this, the important thing is to find the balance between being honest and having a plan. Being proactive and not reactionary. Being strategic with all decisions and focusing on what matters most for the health of the organization.

In that respect, leading through uncertain times really isn’t that different from every day. It just comes with a little more stress.

In a small business that is facing uncertain times? Join our mailing list to get survival tips delivered to your inbox.