Training Leaders to Lead During Uncertain Times

“It’s important for employers to remain level-headed, sensible, and predictable, and present a strong image, focusing on the solidarity of their employees in turbulent economic times,” notes one expert.

We live in uncertain times with a possible recession hanging over our heads. With the exception of inflation, things don’t seem too bad yet, but financial commentators are talking about perilous times to come—or not.

Forbes recently posted an article to its site by Bryan Robinson, Ph.D., on how organizational leaders can cope with such uncertainty, which has been shown to have adverse effects on both work performance and health. Those negative effects then trickle down to employees working under the leader: “The science shows that uncertainty creates more work stress and takes a greater toll on your health than actually losing your job. When employees see their leaders as confident, consistent, and predictable, they’re more likely to feel secure in their jobs. So it’s important for employers to remain level-headed, sensible, and predictable, and present a strong image, focusing on the solidarity of their employees in turbulent economic times,” he writes.

What’s the Mission?

Having a clear mission that is communicated in a simple way to employees helps. I’ve experienced the opposite at many points in my career. It’s hasn’t always been clear in my work what my colleagues and I—and the organizations as a whole—were working toward. What was our ultimate objective beyond each of us earning a paycheck twice a month to cover our living expenses? “People want to feel like they’re impacting a mission that matters. Having a ‘why’ behind what you do—and keeping it consistent—is critical to the success of any team, especially amid times of uncertainty. Find what inspires you and where you and your company can make a difference,” Robinson quotes Jack Newton, the founder and CEO of Clio, as saying.

Every business has customers. You could train managers and departmental leaders to celebrate a customer service excellence win at least once a month, and possibly every week. The leader could call out a story of how an individual employee, or a work group—or the whole department—made a positive impact on the organization’s customers or end-users. If it’s been a bad time, and, in truth, the leader doesn’t have any customer service excellence wins to point to, employees could be inspired by pointing out the opportunity that was presented to wow customers and make an important difference. That way, employees will see the potential to do lifechanging things for people, and may be moved to accomplish that level of service next time. Sometimes just seeing what you could do can be enough to create a greater sense of excitement and contentment with a job.

A Matter of Trust

Expressing to and showing your team that you trust them also can instill confidence in uncertain times. I was just thinking today about the difference it makes when you tell an employee that you’ve heard great things about their work performance, or that you have high expectations for them. People will play to expectations, so if you set high expectations, it’s more likely they will work toward meeting those expectations than if you send signals that you don’t believe they have potential. The same may be true when it comes to trust. “As a CEO—or any kind of leader or manager—it’s natural to stay close to the business and step up in new and different ways during times of uncertainty. But it’s important to clarify that you trust your team. You will earn their trust in return. Don’t micromanage your team on small tasks during times of uncertainty. Find the balance between autonomy and oversight, and empower your team members to take ownership of their work and make decisions independently,” Newton tells Robinson.

Source of Innovation

Newton shared with Robinson that one of the better points of uncertain times is that it can stimulate new ideas and innovation. “Encourage your employees to use periods of uncertainty to be more creative, seek innovative ways to solve problems, and learn from their mistakes to prioritize growth and development during these uncertain times,” Newton advises.

If employees know they have your trust, they may be more inclined to take the leaps that are necessary to work creatively and put their ideas out there. They will go further in their work if they know you believe in them, want to see them succeed, and will give their innovations a fair hearing. Newton told Robinson that he believes in Simon Sinek’s “infinite mindset,” meaning the business landscape has infinite possibilities. If you create a culture in which employees feel they have the ability to safely try—and fail sometimes—you can push forward with new business ventures, even in the face of inflation and a possible recession.

How do you train your leaders to interact, and communicate, with their employees in times of uncertainty?