Imagine your worst day at work... The project you’ve been leading for months has suddenly gone off the rails. It’s clear your team will miss a big deadline, and it’s going to be costly to get everything back on track. You just wrapped another tough meeting with your team members, and it’s clear that everyone is nervous, angry, and defensive.
During the meeting, you tried to reassure the team that everything will be okay and dig in on fixes to the project, but everyone sat there silently (on Zoom or otherwise), too scared to speak up or take responsibility. You are not quite sure how you got here or what to do next. But it’s up to you to lead and find a way for your team to be successful right now and in the long run.
So what do you?
We’ve all been there. When facing a big failure or crisis, it’s easy to let your hard feelings get the best of you — particularly when you’re a part of a team. Maybe you get defensive, point fingers, or blame others. Or perhaps you retreat into self-protection and just shut down — no longer able to think creatively or problem-solve. It’s a classic fight or flight scenario, and these behaviors can be enormously corrosive to trust. It’s also in these difficult moments that teams can start to self-destruct.
As a leader, it’s up to you to recognize what’s happening and focus on maintaining and deepening trust to navigate the current challenge and emerge stronger. As Brene Brown says in Dare to Lead, “leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”
As Brene Brown suggests, it starts by acknowledging the feelings of your team members.
In our culture, there is this pervasive idea that work should be nonemotional. In order to be successful in the workplace, you must silence or push past your emotions and remain logical and intellectual. Frankly, that idea is ridiculous. We are all human beings (even at work), which means that we all deal with natural human emotional responses to work things. It may seem counterintuitive — the higher you get in leadership, the more time you will spend navigating your team’s emotions.
So, step one to navigating a crisis, flex your emotional intelligence and help your team members name the emotions coming up.
Next, ask your team members this question, “what do you need from me?” As your team members make suggestions, ask, “what else?” Your priority is to listen fully to the answers you’re given without reacting. This is such a powerful exercise for a few reasons.
First, it takes you out of “fix-it mode” and allows for broader conversation. It also puts your team members in a place of authority — you are looking to them for answers and solutions that you may not be able to see. Finally, it shows that you know you may not know all the answers and are aware that you may have blindspots. When coupled with meaningful follow-up, this exercise is a big one for building trust and connection. This brings me to the important last step.
Once you’ve gathered your team’s feedback, ask them for a break so you can digest it, and then identify a time you’ll come back to them with your response.
Finally, it’s critical to remember that there can be no trust without accountability. Of course, this applies to you and your team members. You need them to take ownership of things that have gone wrong and take responsibility for finding solutions. More importantly, your team members have to trust that you will take full accountability for your failures and that you won’t attempt to shift blame or tolerate blame-shifting from others.
Model what accountability looks like by openly talking about your mistakes, apologizing for the damage those mistakes have caused, and committing to a plan of action. At the end of the (work)day, crises usually uncover what already is within a team or organization — the good and the bad both shine brighter in times of challenge. Using these strategies long before problems arise will ensure that your team can navigate tough times with strength, resilience, and trust.