Inspired Leadership – Helping Employees Bounce Back in Tough Times


The media is filled with bad news. Each day brings more stories about bailouts, business cutbacks, additional layoffs and new closings. Comedians joke about it constantly and employees chat about little else.

It’s no wonder that managers are seeing sharp declines in employee morale and productivity. Tough times like these breed fear and uncertainty. Employees are hunkering down, and concerned about job security. In this type of environment teamwork suffers because people would rather protect their own turf rather than collaborate to achieve common goals.

And managers aren’t immune to tough times, either. Their 401Ks are also shrinking and their jobs may be just as threatened.

But, as a leader, you can’t simply “stall” and hope to ride things out. If you don’t take active, positive steps – right now — to help your employees bounce back then things could quickly go from bad to worse. This is the time for leaders to step up and inspire their employees to reach above the challenges. Your people are ready for a new playbook and they’re looking for you to provide it. The good news? This may turn out to be your finest hour.

As legendary NBA coach Pat Riley says, “You have no choices about how you lose, but you do have a choice about how you come back and prepare to win again.”

It’s time to go on offense, not stay on defense
If you’re going to lift your employees and help them rise to the occasion, you have to begin by putting on your “game face.” When you express confidence and a positive attitude they’ll begin to put their fears aside.

But this doesn’t mean you ignore the bad news. You have to face reality; otherwise you won’t be able to help your people overcome their fears. But you can be realistic about the challenges while also communicating confidence. One way to do this is to acknowledge and confront the pain your employees may be feeling:

• Recognize and validate strong feelings. If your employees are experiencing conflicted emotions, give them an opportunity to vent and express those feelings.

• Allow people to grieve their losses. Change always involves something gained and something lost. Don’t be blind to the fact that many employers will regret some of the changes your organization is undergoing.

• Consider referrals to outside counseling, if needed. For some people change is such a traumatic experience that it’s beyond the scope of many managers to deal with effectively. Fortunately there are professionals who can give your employees the assistance they need.

Another way to go on offense is to re-energize your employees. The stress of dealing with all the bad news and struggling with fear can cause even the best employee team to lose direction. You can get them back on track by building a new consensus to move the department forward:

• Re-emphasize short-term goals and the company’s overall vision.You can’t afford to let employees lose sight of what’s important. Your organization has a mission and now is the perfect time to remind your employees of that.

• Invite input on important decisions.After all, you’re all in this together. If your employees understand the goals than they should be allowed some input into how those goals can best be accomplished.

• Schedule something fun to help with morale.Some of the best forms of productivity increases occur when you give employees a chance to reduce stress while meeting aggressive goals and deadlines.

John Wooden, the architect of the UCLA basketball dynasty, puts it this way, “Things turn out the best for those people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

Be a coach and not a cheerleader

This is an ideal time to focus on your coaching skills. Even though times may be tough there’s no reason you can’t bring out the best in your team. Your employees will feel reassured and positively motivated when you take the time to coach them. It gives them a sense of continuity and helps keep them focused. It’s also a great morale booster.
As a coach you can help your employees move past the fear and uncertainty of tough times through several strategies:

•Help your employees to build on their strengths. Through this positive approach you can boost employees’ confidence and motivation. But you’ll also have to help them to develop in some areas as necessary. As long as you provide this feedback – positive or developmental – in a constructive and helpful manner it will be taken to heart.

•Set individual developmental goals for your employees. This is a very effective way to reassure them that they play an important role in the company and that you support their future growth.

• Involve them more in decision-making. When employees have a role in setting goals and making decisions it helps to reinforce their sense of control. It’s harder to succumb to fear when you feel that you have a stake in decisions and move to action rather than fret about it.

You might also try encouraging your employees to get involved in cross training and coaching each other. While there may initially be some fear of making themselves obsolete (by cross training a replacement) this is nevertheless a very effective tool for building a greater sense of teamwork and camaraderie among employees.

As basketball superstar Michael Jordan points out, “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

Use your “chalk talk” to build trust

Successful coaches use “chalk talk” to diagram plays, teach strategies, inspire performance and communicate goals to their teams. You can use your “chalk talk” (in whatever form it takes) to communicate with your team in order to build trust.

The more your employees learn from you – especially in difficult times – the more they will trust you, communicate openly themselves and begin to grasp the positive steps they must take to be successful. Communication is the key:

• Demonstrate “transparency.” You can’t build trust if your employees feel you’re holding back or not telling them the “real truth.” It’s always a wise policy to keep everyone well informed, but it’s especially crucial during difficult times. Employees who are left in the dark are far more prone to anxiety and fear.

• Solicit feedback and questions. You won’t have all the answers but the mere fact that you’re willing to invite two-way communication goes a long way toward building trust and restoring morale.

• Control the “grapevine” and the “rumor mill.” There’s no doubt that plenty of misinformation is going to be flying around the office in times like these. Fear has a way of provoking that. Don’t be afraid to confront rumors and suspicions directly. Dispel them if you can and acknowledge them if you must. But don’t ignore them and let them fester.

It’s your job to lead your team. However, there can be little doubt that managing in tough times demands more from a leader.

Tough times require leaders to exhibit a positive attitude, a dogged determination, a patient understanding, and a clear vision. These are good qualities to exhibit at all times, but more difficult to practice when things aren’t going well.

But this may actually turn out to be your finest hour. While most managers wouldn’t consciously welcome bad conditions, there’s no reason you can’t embrace these challenges as a way to provide inspirational leadership.

You shouldn’t have to wait for the economy to bounce back to see your employees’ productivity and success rise. Instead, you should inspire your followers to shake off the fears and challenges of tough times and reach for new levels of success. When you help your employees to bounce back from bad times you’re teaching them a winning formula for success that always pays off, no matter how tough or challenging the times may be!