6 Practices to Help Lead Employees Through Uncertain Times

When a flight hits a patch of turbulence, almost every passenger does the same thing–look to the nearest flight attendant. Their reaction to the situation informs whether, and how much to panic. As the CEO or leader of a company, when you hit a rough patch, your employees look to you to set the tone.

Being in a leadership role requires wearing many hats. From adjusting to employees’ desire for better work-life balance to combating supply chain disruptions to prioritizing mental and emotional wellness. It can be overwhelming and not everyone is suited to it, but there are practices that leaders can employ to help steer their ship–and crew–through rough waters.

Practice Empathy

When thinking about the most helpful, effective ways to address your team members’ questions and concerns during times of uncertainty, it helps to put yourself in their shoes. To get into the correct frame of mind, ask yourself general and specific questions like, “What would my biggest concerns be if I were in this situation?” or “What would I be thinking or feeling if I were the sole provider for my family?”

Practice Transparency

Be honest. You want to be inspirational and keep things positive, but if it’s not sincere, that will show. Furthermore, if trying to be upbeat conflicts with the reality of a situation, it will come off as tone-deaf. 

Practice Self-care

Revisiting the flight attendant analogy, think about what they tell you before take-off: put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. This rule applies to anyone in a leadership position. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll end up being useless to those who rely on you.

A common mistake made among leaders is carrying the burdens of their employees. For empaths, it happens organically; for others, it is often a result of conflating leadership and compassion. One approach to helping employees address a problem is to actively listen and support them as they talk through their own problem-solving process. Alternatively, you might suggest other resources that can help them tackle the challenges they’re facing.

Practice Ego-Checks

When faced with difficult scenarios and decisions that will significantly impact your business, a natural gut reaction–especially for a highly visible person–is to want to save face. I’ve been there myself, several times, and each time has reinforced that a “we” mentality always wins because the truth is that you’re only as strong as your employees. And when you are at the helm of the thing responsible for feeding, clothing, and providing homes for them and their families, your ego needs to take a seat in the way back.

Practice a Team Mentality

I put my employees first, not just during hard times, but every day. Because without them, there is no business, and I make sure to tell them that as often as I can. So far, it’s paid off.

Because of the lessons, I learned as a new business navigating the outset of the dot-com bubble burst, as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I knew we had to preserve cash if we were to survive. Even after cutting my pay to zero and my two most senior executives cutting their pay in half, it wasn’t nearly enough to make an impact. I considered a reduction in force–a permanent elimination of positions–but the thought of letting 25 percent of my people go at all, let alone just to survive, didn’t work for me. In the end, the most sufferable decision was to cut everyone’s pay by 25 percent.  

I expected my employees to be upset, even angry; instead, I received thank-you notes detailing how grateful they were to work for Dotcom Distribution. In hindsight, I made the best decision I could have. The silver lining is that, because our sector was deemed essential, I was quickly able to not only restore everyone’s salaries to 100 percent, but I was also able to pay back the 25 percent, too.

Practice Embracing the Unknown

While there is a time and place to fake it ’til you make it, other times call for being honest about what you don’t know or what’s on the other side of an event or decision. Be open about not having all the answers and acknowledge that you will stumble as you find your way in the short term. Be clear, though, that you are committed to long-term success and this journey you’re all on together will only strengthen the company.

Challenging, stressful situations bring out the best and worst in people, and giving everyone what they need is a nearly impossible task. The best you can do–for your employees and yourself–is to lead with compassion, tolerance, humility, and honesty.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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