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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Manage Your Team Through Change or Crisis

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We’ve all seen it happen: Closed-door meetings. Executives walking around with clenched jaws. Team of two or three whispering among themselves about what might be going on.

When your company is going through a time of crisis, turmoil, or even just change—the uncertainty and gossip that ensues can derail productivity, torpedo motivation, and bring down morale at all levels. But as a manager, it’s your job to keep your team happy and performing at their best.

So, when the you-know-what is hitting the fan all around you, how can you keep calm and carry on?

No matter what’s going on—whether it’s a good change, bad news, or something totally unknown—here’s how to address the chaos with your team, keep the gossip at bay, and get everyone back to work.

Crisis Level 1: A Change Is Happening

Even if what’s happening isn’t a bad thing—say, your company is acquiring a smaller competitor or getting a new CEO—any sort of change tends to breed uncertainty, fear, and low morale.

So, the best thing you can do in this case is to proactively discuss the situation with your team (at least, as much as you’re permitted to), sharing all you know about what’s happening.

More importantly, remain positive about it. For example, if your company is considering expanding into a new market, give positive support to that decision, or, if you have historical data or studies that show that it’s worked for similar companies, share them. If a new CEO has come on board, don’t focus on the organizational changes you’re bound to face—instead, share information about this person’s stellar track record at other companies and what he or she might do for yours.

If you, the manager, stay positive and provide compelling reasons to get on board with the changes, it will be much harder for your employees to spread a negative attitude throughout the organization.

Crisis Level 2: The Unknown Is Happening

Something major is happening—you just don’t know what it is yet. (Or, you do know what it is—you just don’t have all the details.)

In this case, remember that rumors start swirling when people are aware that something’s going on, but no one addresses the issue head-on. So, to thwart the gossip, it’s important to be upfront and discuss what you know with your team.

Even if you don’t have all the details, that’s OK. Try something like, “I know you may have been hearing rumors about a potential round of layoffs. I don’t have a lot of information about what’s going on, but I can tell you that sales have been down for three quarters straight, and the executive team is trying to figure out the Q4 budget.” Or, if you are able to reassure your team about any negative news, do so.

Also, give them an anticipated timeline as to when more information will be public—or when you plan to update them again. By giving your staff some true facts, reassurance, and a timeframe for more open discussion, you mitigate the need to gossip for information. (And in the meantime, you can request that team members stop discussing the news until the public announcement and to come to you with any specific questions.)

You may also want to share your employees’ concerns with your boss, let him or her know that rumors are flying, and suggest that upper management address these issues with the entire company (where appropriate). Even if the higher-ups can’t give specific answers to every question, an open-door policy that goes beyond you will increase trust within the company as a whole.

Crisis Level 3: The Worst Is Happening

Sometimes, you do know what’s going on. Sometimes, the news really is that bad. And in these situations, pretty similar advice applies.

When you know that a huge change is coming down the pipeline, particularly a negative one, you should be as open as possible about it with your staff. Even if the news is bad, it’s usually better for those details to come from you, rather than through the office grapevine (and ideally, sooner rather than later).

I personally experienced the effects of negative company-wide news when I worked at a startup as a fresh college graduate. For months, it seemed like things weren't going well. All of us were speculating about the company shutting down, which led to a total lack of engagement on our part. We were showing up late, slacking off, and trying to search for another job on the sly.

Finally, our manager came to us and candidly told us that yes, the company was shutting down. He gave us a 30-day notice, offered a strong reference on behalf of himself and the owner, and allowed us to use the office to send out resumes and hunt for a new job.

This is an extreme example, but the point is: Even though he had to confirm negative news, it was much better for us to know what was happening than to continue to speculate about it. Plus, we were much more motivated to get back to work and to wrap up outstanding projects during the remainder of our time there once we knew what was going on.

Managing in a time of change or crisis can be difficult, but it’s important to address uncertainty and negativity as quickly, concisely, and truthfully as possible. By encouraging transparency among your team and throughout the organization, you can minimize the impact the situation has on your work.