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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Steps for Managing a Team During a Crisis

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Working for a company that's experiencing layoffs, a lawsuit, a merger, or any other kind of corporate crisis can feel a little like swimming in the ocean. It gets hard to keep track of exactly where you’re going, and sometimes, it’s challenging just to stay afloat.

These situations get even more difficult when you’re charged with managing other employees through the chaos. Not only do you have to keep your own levels of stress and panic at a minimum, you have to help others do so, all the while maintaining productivity and morale.

While there’s rarely a defined path through a crisis, there are some standard practices that can help you move past obstacles and keep your team engaged, amid even the most tumultuous environment.

1. Be Open and Honest

This might seem like a given, but sometimes our natural reaction during a crisis is to withdraw. But going radio silent on your team when they know something is up will undoubtedly turn your office into a churning rumor mill—the opposite of the positive and productive workplace you’re trying to maintain.

Even though you probably can't share every detail of what's happening, providing your team with information in a timely and professional manner will reduce their speculation and fear. Also be sure to allow people to ask questions and share their concerns with you. When things are changing quickly, the one thing that helps us maintain a sense of control is information.

Try: Depending on how quickly your crisis is unfolding, it’s a good idea to check in at least every couple of days, if not daily. If you don’t have time for regular update meetings, try sending a once-a-day email update or organizing an informal team huddle each morning to share updates and hear concerns.

2. Set Boundaries

That said, as a leader and the person closest to the information, you must walk the fine line between sharing openly with your team and keeping certain things behind closed doors. There's no black and white answer to this—it will vary by company and situation, and it can change each day—but knowing when to filter a certain level of information from others is an important part of the crisis-management process.

If you’re not sure what’s OK for public consumption, ask your boss what you can share with your team, or ask other managers what they’re sharing. You don’t want to be holding out important information on anyone, but you definitely don’t want to be the person who’s spilling any confidential details.

Try: If you get questions you’re not comfortable with or prepared to answer, be honest. It’s OK to tell your team “I don’t know that right now,” or “I can’t share that today but promise to update you as soon as the decision is finalized.” They’ll appreciate that honesty much more than you stretching the truth or avoiding the conversation altogether.

3. Actions Speak Louder

Closed-door conversations and after-hours meetings might not seem like a big deal, especially when everyone knows you’re working through a crisis, but these types of meetings can be cues to make the people around you feel uneasy. And when there’s already an air of tension, feelings of insecurity can translate into decreased performance and negative team dynamics.

It's impossible not to alter some of your usual routine and behavior when you’re responding to a crisis, but maintaining a consistent attitude and demeanor will help promote a feeling of stability. Take time each day to remind yourself that you will get through this, and that people are counting on you to lead the way.

Try: Take 10 minutes a day to walk the floor and check in with your team. Your presence will be reassuring and they’ll appreciate having face time with you. If it’s appropriate (read: not the day half of your team was let go), find ways to insert fun into each day, even if it’s just for a few minutes, through silly recognition efforts, snack and music breaks, or a team happy hour.

4. Stay Organized

If you're leading a team through a crisis, chances are you've got a lot of new responsibilities and tasks on your own plate. And yes, the added work and pressure of managing new deadlines and concerns from customers or higher-ups will be stressful, to say the least.

But, it’s important to do everything you can to stay productive and organized during this time—not only to stay afloat, but to help your team view the situation as being under control (or at least, to make it feel like less of a tornado). If you, on the other hand, appear like you’re not functioning at your normal level or if you’re letting things drop, that can be a cue to your team that it’s okay to do the same—and that’s the last thing you want.

Try: Plan to start or end each day with a status check-in on your own projects. Keep your notes updated, save all important documents and emails in one secure location, and be feverish with your deadlines and to-dos.

These tips can't help prevent a crisis (sigh), but they can help you get through one while remaining a fearless leader to your team. It’s never easy to work through a customer crisis, an audit or lawsuit, or large-scale company changes—but no matter how much you may want to pull your hair out at the end of the day, making it through is an incredible way to learn. Not only will you become skilled at resolving intense situations, but you’ll also learn how to help your organization work together, in good times and in bad.

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