How to Lead in Times of Discontinuity and Distress

As leaders, we must coach our teams through the stress and uncertainty while grappling with those same issues ourselves.

Over the past few years, it feels like every week has held some “unprecedented” or historic event. Yet despite this constant upheaval, teams are still expected to not just perform, but adapt: to respond to rapidly changing consumer needs and market fluctuations, all while implementing new ways of working together and balancing challenges at home. 

We’re in a period of discontinuity: we’ve never experienced all of these conditions all at once, and as a result, our past experiences are no longer as useful for informing future decision-making. This discontinuity affects everyone, it’s cumulative, and it’s not going away—yet as leaders, we must coach our teams through the stress and uncertainty while grappling with those same issues ourselves. As you prepare to lead your team each week, not knowing what tomorrow’s headlines will bring, consider the following:

  1. First, assess your own state of mind. The hardest—but most quintessential—role of leaders is to meet our teams where they are. And we can’t do that if we haven’t had a moment to process our own reactions first. Think about your presence and how you want to show up as a leader. 
  2. Recognize that everyone is having a radically different experience. On any given day, members of your team may not be showing up at their personal best, and they’re not necessarily on the same page. As a leader, it’s natural to feel responsible for keeping the business on track, but respect that others may have different priorities at the moment. Simply wanting them to care about the things you care about will backfire, so seek to empathize and support their needs to the best of your ability. 
  3. Acknowledge grief, particularly loss of control. Every change involves loss. In the workplace, this tends to manifest as a loss of control or loss of narrative: what can any one individual do in the face of such complex, overwhelming events? Find ways to give your employees some sense of choice or empowerment: how do they want to respond? Can you help connect their day-to-day work to a greater sense of purpose?
  4. Assess the team’s capacity for reflection. Historically, many organizations have adopted a policy of “business as usual,” keeping discussions of current events outside the meeting room. While this may have been initiated with the best of intentions—especially given increased polarization—blocking discussion can actually create more tension. People need time and space to process events, but your organization may require a distinct approach:
    • If you’ve already built some level of psychological safety, set aside time (such as during a check-in) for people to acknowledge any stress they’re feeling, and discuss how the team can support each other going forward. 
    • If, however, psychological safety feels low, or the organization has never tried to openly address current events, this practice could run the risk of feeling “out of character” or inauthentic. If inviting people to participate in discussion, therefore, acknowledge that this is a different approach than in the past. Then think through how this can translate throughout the organization: for instance, how could you help your middle managers create safe spaces for their teams? 
  1. Look for opportunities to add slack going forward. Realistically, you need to build the capacity to navigate emotionally difficult times like these when your organization has some slack—when you’re not already under pressure. Reduce complexity, budget extra time for activities, and start rebuilding resources to give your team the flexibility and space they need to increase resilience in the long-term.
  2. Conduct a Sensing Session to identify ripple effects. When appropriate, bring your team together to think through how current events may affect your business: will energy prices or market fluctuations impact short-term priorities? Have new risks or opportunities emerged in the long-term? What signals might be worth tracking? Then, develop some “if/then” statements to think through what you’ll do in advance. 
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How to Lead in Times of Discontinuity and Distress
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