Team demotivated by a company crisis
Economic downturn. Leadership changes. Thwarted IPOs. Layoffs. When a crisis hits your company — and it inevitably will — how can you keep it from taking the wind out of your team’s sails?
What could be going on?
- The team hasn’t had time yet to fully process the news.
- Team members are understandably anxious about how the news will affect them.
- Team members are frustrated and confused because they’re hearing different versions of the news.
- You’ve downplayed or avoided talking about the crisis, which has turned it into the proverbial elephant in the room.
- Your team withstood a round of layoffs and is now suffering from “survivor’s guilt.”
- One or more team members are fanning the flames with gossip or rumors.
- The news demotivated you, too, and you’re having trouble leading by example.
Ways to handle it:
1. Seek and follow guidance from leaders on what you can — and can’t — say.
Most companies provide messaging for managers to relay to their teams when a crisis hits. But if yours doesn’t, talk to your manager and ask for guidance on what’s appropriate to share. That way, you’ll be ready to address your team’s concerns without jeopardizing yourself politically.
Keep in mind that no matter how much you empathize with your team, or how confused and concerned you are yourself, as a manager you’ve been trusted to exercise good judgment and act in the company’s best interests.
2. Have an open conversation about the event with your team.
Your team won’t forget it — or forgive you — if you lock yourself in your office until the climate improves. Instead, be a true leader. Call a meeting to listen to and support your team members, and, in the process, score big points in the trust and credibility departments. This approach will serve you well once people have acclimated to new realities. That day will also come sooner if you give your team the outlet they need to voice their concerns.
“It’s been a crazy week here. I wanted to touch base and hear from you about how you’re feeling. What concerns and questions do you have?”
Since everyone processes change differently, and at their own pace, it’s also a good idea to follow up with people 1-on-1. that way, you can ask open-ended questions to help you better understand each person’s state of mind, reframe the change in ways that tap into his or her motivations and goals, and if appropriate, suggest ways you can help.
3. Don’t try to spin or downplay it.
If you’ve ever been “right-sized,” or told immediately after getting bad news that it’s “actually a great opportunity,” you know how insulting and demoralizing it is to be fed a line. Instead of raising team members’ spirits, it will make them angry — which will cause their motivation to sink more, not less. Say it like it is.
Experienced manager and Jhana content contributor Jit Bhattacharya explains what he did to keep his team engaged during a period of uncertainty and fear.
4. Set expectations by telling people up front, “If I can’t answer a question, I’ll just say so.”
This approach can be useful in instances when you really do know more about a crisis situation, but can’t reveal everything to your team for legal, political or other reasons — for example, if a leader resigns because of a health issue that he or she wants to keep private. It’s critical that you be honest without overstepping your bounds, and this approach will allow you to do that.
When the news breaks, make it clear right off the bat that you’re open to any questions, but might not be able to answer in some cases. Most people realize that not everything can be shared.
“Please feel free to ask me anything, and I’ll answer to the best of my ability. If something comes up that I can’t get into, I’ll just say so.”
5. Help your team manage the stress.
Crisis brings uncertainty, and uncertainty often means anxiety. Try to balance an attitude of calm confidence with heightened awareness of team members’ stress levels. Some specific actions you can take:
- Give timely, frequent updates. People tend to crave information during periods of uncertainty; without it, they assume the worst. Overcommunicate by sharing what you know — even if that means simply giving an update that there are things you still don’t know — to reduce anxiety and keep the rumor mill in check.
- Be an active and empathetic listener and observer. Proactively seeking your team’s feedback and then hearing people out sends the message that you care and want to help. And remember that silence doesn’t necessarily mean everything’s OK — watch for nonverbal cues and initiate difficult conversations if you sense something’s off.
- Expect and forgive emotional outbursts. It’s normal for people to get emotional about changes. Managers who get rattled by signs of fear or frustration may inadvertently encourage their teams to hide what they’re really feeling.
- If possible, limit other changes the team is going through. Let’s say you were planning to switch up a longstanding team process — and then the economy crashes, sending your organization scrambling to shift strategy. Might be a good idea to shelve the process tweak for a while.
For more tips, see our article Are your direct reports on the road to burnout? Some signs they may be and ways to prevent it.
6. Listen compassionately when people vent — but don’t join in.
There’s a big difference between showing that you care and jumping in to air your own grievances when team members vent. Listen, ask questions and acknowledge team members’ feelings (e.g., “I can understand why you would feel that way”), but stop there. As tempting as it may be to join in any gripe sessions, doing so could damage your credibility and make your team feel even worse. Make it about them, not you.
Also, keep in mind that your manager or others may check in with your team during times of crisis to find out what you’ve said. If the thought makes you cringe, you need to zip it.
7. Give it time.
If you rush into any attempts to redirect your team members’ energy, you could become the focus of their frustration. Everyone processes bad news in different ways, and on different timetables. Some team members will lash out; others will withdraw. Some will be ready to move on quickly; others will stew for a long period.
Depending on the scale of the crisis, you may need to dial back expectations for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. If you’re not sure whether your team is ready to refocus, ask open-ended questions like these to gauge their mindset and how you can help:
- “How are things going this week?”
- “On a scale of one to 10 how are you feeling about things?”
- “What feels like the hardest part of this?”
8. Lead by example.
Teams take their cues from those at the helm. If your motivation wanes or devolves into cynicism, your team members’ will, too. Conversely, if you confront reality with ultimate confidence that your team will succeed, keep your body language positive, and continue to show your commitment to the company, they’ll notice. Most will eventually follow suit.
9. Redirect the team’s energy.
Once you’ve given your team the time, space and ample opportunities to talk through the crisis, you’ll need to turn everyone’s focus back toward improving the situation for the company. This may require some finesse and compassion, depending on the nature of the crisis; obviously, if you just went through a round of layoffs, no one wants to see you clap your hands together and say, “OK, back to work!”
Continue to let people know that you believe in them. And in non-layoff crisis situations, rally them behind a common goal, perhaps emphasizing that the crisis has made reaching that goal even more critical.
“Losing the Jackson contract was a big setback for us, but this is a great team. I know that we can bounce back. I’ve revisited our sales goals, and if we close three new deals by the end of the quarter, our revenues will be back where they were. I’ll be talking to each of you in our 1-on-1s about how we can get there, and look forward to hearing your ideas as well.”
For an example of a brutally honest yet inspiring “rally the troops” message, check out Stephen Elop’s famous “burning platform” memo.