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'5 Quick Tips' for leading teams in tough times

1 - BEWARE THE 'FEAR FACTOR' - Morale is a state of mind. What state is the team really in?

Tough times, uncertainty and turbulence can easily increase individual fear levels, and impact team dynamics.

Fear for job security and of individual survival, and even departmental or organisational survival can insidiously stifle innovation and morale needed to actually enable survival. Undermining strength and exacerbating weakness is the last thing a leader needs in challenging times..

Fear triggers emotional reactivity in the brain's limbic system. The 'fight, freeze or flight' reactions. This can increase the intensity of emotional reactivity in day to day working relationships and also the impact of cognitive biases that come into play during decision-making These reactions serve us well in some scenarios, but can undermine quality thinking at a strategic level.

Fear driven reactivity serves to undermine rational and strategic thinking if left un-checked. Watch for the behavioural indicators of task and emotional overload, and how it is impacting the team and their working relationships. Certain team members may possess the behavioural skills to spot and defuse such tensions naturally. We use tools like the Belbin Model to identify such strengths within a team to help provide strategies for them to be leveraged best when needed.

Good leadership seeks to understand the behavioural triggers and signs of such reactivity in the team, and works to offset them with well-timed interventions and positivity. Being open and honest about the real state of play also helps people to assess exactly where they stand, reduce uncertainty and serves to build trust.

People usually figure it all out anyway, and so replacing rumours with facts can help to keep the 'rumour mills' in check and build trust that openness from leadership is present and is sincere. Trust in leadership and and sense of security are amongst the many important building blocks of morale.

Well timed “morale boosters” be they some on-site fun, off-site team days / social initiatives can also go a long way to offsetting the fear that comes with uncertainty.

2 - LOOK FOR ANY GOOD NEWS - Well-timed positives to punctuate any developing gloom.

Uncertain times can bring with them a contagious atmosphere of doom and gloom. Media-fuelled talk of 'tough times' often adds to this weight of potentially morale sapping 'vibe'.

It’s easy to jump onto this bandwagon and drop your head, but the challenge is to find and feature some positive messages to balance out the challenges being faced. Finding and highlighting credible positives, and finishing on a high when possible in meetings can help with morale. Challenges need to be addressed, but when topped and tailed with a positive, it can help.

Find meaningful positives that are relevant to the team. Make sure they are truthful, not just trite “feel goods” or worse white lies just to get a quick smile or temporary morale boost.

Good leaders pass on good news as well as the bad. It's not about ignoring the bad, just making sure that you don't let the bad lead you into ignoring any useful 'good'.

3 - PRESERVE HUMAN DIGNITY - Don’t use “leading with fear” as a tool, try to cultivate 'psychological safety' within the team.

Uncertainty and any fear of job security can promote a culture of unnecessary submission, compliance and even the subsuming of individual dignity within teams. Are people saying 'can do' in situations where it's clearly a 'can't do' out of fear for their own security?

People in fear may lose their confidence to speak up, to call it like it is and avoid 'rocking the boat' when required. A good leader recognises that this may be occurring and will hopefully put human dignity over getting some extra miles out of people fearful of their jobs.

An atmosphere of 'psychological safety', where people feel able to be themselves and have a say, may be harder to preserve in difficult times, but such an atmosphere enables collective IQ to go up, and not down.

Be straight with people, expect only what is right to be expected of people and ease the fear rather than fuel it. The payoff is higher morale, productivity and loyalty.

4 - DON'T GET CHANNELISED IN MICRO MATTERS - Look at the broader “team” issues and not just the “balance sheet”.

Tough times can force leaders to channel their attention onto the micro issues and away from broader team issues. As important as the details are in tough times, a lack of focus on vital ongoing team development and 'soft skills' can make matters worse.

In challenging times the ongoing health of the team itself is important.

Team leaders need to pull themselves back frequently from the micro issues to honestly appraise the behavioural health of the team, and manage clashes, tensions and working relationship dynamics.

Increased strain can bring out existing cognitive biases and weaknesses with potentially greater impact, and so looking at 'how we are working together' can avert lasting damage to the team dynamic and daily execution.

5 - TAKE TIME TO RECHARGE YOUR PEOPLE POWER - Invest in the “People Bit” with opportunities to engage the team.

Investing time in one on one chats, mentoring team members that are showing signs of stress or fatigue and generally “taking a sincere interest” in your people helps to alleviate fear and stress (when sincerely handled).

Where possible and budgets permit, investing in actual “total team” engagement sessions or team days / half days demonstrates a care for the “people bit” to the team. The interactions that occur in such an environment can engender more confidence, faith in leadership and cohesion in tougher times.

The resilience needed to work through challenging times can often be aided by taking a little time for such interventions and 'sharpening the saw' as Stephen Covey would have it with one of his famous 7 Habits.

Whether fun, or aimed at actually getting g deeper into the behavioral strengths and weaknesses of the team, a little time can go a long way with team morale.

This could take the form of an organised on-site or off-site session like we have here – or a ‘Do It Yourself’ team check up (or facilitated session) using a proven tool like the Belbin team Roles here –


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