MT Expert - People: Leading in tough times

Virginia Merritt explains how leaders must behave to keep their staff onside in turbulent times...

Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013

Coping with the impact of the recession on our businesses is tough enough. Yet probably our biggest challenge right now is how we lead our people through it. There is no doubt that in tough times people watch their senior leaders even more closely for cues on what’s happening and how to react. Ed Schein, the US leadership guru, cites ‘leader reaction to critical incidents’ in his top 10 determinants of people’s behaviour in organisations. So when I heard recently of a senior director whose brief private outburst about how difficult things were for his business led - within just 24 hours - to an article in the local newspaper about how redundancies at the company were imminent, I was reminded of the heightened sensitivity to leaders’ behaviour in uncertain times.

At times like this it’s helpful to have a simple checklist of what we have to do to keep people focused on the right things, and to minimise concerns that will otherwise distract energy on to the wrong things:

1. Avoid further uncertainty. When the world around us is in flux, people are grateful for any stability we can give them – even on small matters. For example, reassuring employees about where you stand in the general economic situation, making very clear when it would start to get serious, will at least allay unfounded concerns that everyone is about to be laid off. If you can give a personal assurance that you will do everything to keep the current team intact, make sure you say it loud and clear.

2. Keep calm – especially in front of employees. They pick up on the slightest whiff of panic, which can trigger a spiral of emotional reactions round the firm in a matter of minutes. A CEO told me that he is making a conscious effort to be calm, supportive and in control, even though he was feeling somewhat uneasy himself about the market unpredictability.

3. Communicate as frequently as possible, sharing information openly and saying what you are doing about it. Being on the front foot is key. Getting round the business to talk informally with people face-to-face, listening to their concerns and being visible is just what people need.  Burying yourself in meetings with senior colleagues usually fuels unnecessary rumours and concerns about impending changes.

4. Find the right balance between pessimism and optimism. I am not recommending ‘spin’ to conceal the truth; openness and honesty is critical. Yet if you encourage a more flexible and proactive approach to look for new business opportunities as your customers and clients urgently seek new products, services and approaches that will help them through the recession, you can start to build a more positive attitude and culture. This is where the smaller, privately owned enterprise has the edge over the larger corporations; you have much more choice about what you do to seize new opportunities, how fast you can change and also what you can say.

5. Finally, don’t batten down the hatches and try to carry on as normal. See the recession as an opportunity to stay even closer to your customers, find out what they really need and use the energy and innovation of your people to work out how they can respond. In times of crisis, if you focus on looking after your people then they will look after your customers.

Virginia Merritt is managing partner at Stanton Marris, a consultancy that specialises in working with leaders at all levels to bridge the gap between strategy and execution, focusing on leadership development, culture and values and employee engagement to make your performance sustainable. For more information visit

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