Tools and tactics for improving leadership in challenging situations

Tools and tactics for improving leadership in challenging situations


1. Start with yourself

To effectively lead others in an increasingly complex environment, leaders must first learn to lead themselves. Like the instructions in a plane crash, you are first asked to save your life and put on your oxygen mask, then to put it on your children and loved ones.

In this crisis context, it is even more important to take care of yourself first, to better manage your teams and to make well-thought-out strategic decisions. The "survival" of your teams, your department, and your customers/suppliers depends on your "survival" as a manager/leader. The crisis is an interesting event to explore and it is important not to get caught up in the circumstances, but rather to see it as an opportunity to understand your strengths and to foster a learning culture.

1.1. Let go of perfectionism and reconnect with your values, your vision and your mission.

In a difficult period and a complex environment, the context is constantly changing. You may have noticed that some of your fears are related to a lack of self-confidence, for example: "I am not up to it" or "I will not be able to do it". This is quite normal because you are in a "dangerous" situation, outside your comfort zone, and fear is the first human reaction in such a situation.

Tips: rather than aiming for perfectionism, aim for progress, learn from your mistakes and remember that there are no failures, only feedback. Reconnect with who you are, define your mission, your vision and what is really important to you right now in this context. This step will allow you to refocus on yourself, slow down and make decisions creatively.

1.2. Step back and take a different perspective

Leaders often get stuck in the challenges they face. When we are under stress, our critical thinking is diminished and our vision narrows the field of solutions.

"Zooming out," or moving from "the dance floor to the balcony," as Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow describe in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, gives you a broader perspective and a systemic view of problems, suggest Rebecca Zucker and Darin Rowell in their article HBR 6 Strategies for Leading Through Uncertainty.

Take a helicopter, visualise yourself in that helicopter and look, and observe. What do you see? What does the current environment tell you? What do you feel? What are your emotions? What if you connect to your values? What can you do to honour your core values and have a real impact on the crisis you are facing? If, for example, one of your core values is to help your people to grow and succeed at work, what impact can you have? What can emerge from this crisis if you look at the bigger picture?

Tips: If you feel helpless, powerless, exhausted and don't know where to start, use the technique of positive autosuggestion:

  • Repeat or write down words that will boost you, such as "I'm going to make it, my teams are counting on me!" and repeat them a hundred times, while looking in the mirror, doing sports or any other routine.
  • It is also important to reinforce the mental model you are in to keep you going. Take stock of your day, write a diary of 10 gratitudes per day, and visualise a positive image before bed. Have a positive behavioural attitude towards yourself to encourage positive attitudes in your staff, and thus ensure the activity and performance of your department and your company. Remember that growth is strongly linked to our behavioural attitudes.

1.3. Integrate 'reflective' / 'slow' thinking into your routine

Each situation is unique and requires a different approach. There is no guide on how to solve all problems. However, the focus on information, reaction and execution, while it may seem productive, is detrimental to the quality of our thinking. Reflective thinking occurs when a person explores their assumptions, beliefs and knowledge while making connections between them and seeing new possibilities.

Daniel Kahneman has argued that 'slow thinking' or reflective thinking is the opposite of 'fast thinking', meaning that when one is active, the other is not. Making analogies with challenges you have faced in the past can be helpful, but it can also lead you to wrong conclusions and ineffective solutions.

Tips: Resist "quick thinking" or jumping to conclusions. To develop a routine, set aside time for reflective thinking. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, spends between 90 minutes and two hours a day on it and says it is "the most important productivity tool". You can also include reflection time in your routine. For example, start your day with 30 minutes of yoga or meditation.

1.4. Free yourself from your fears and anxiety

Fear and anxiety are emotions associated with danger, and they are quite normal in a crisis context. On the other hand, to be effective in your communication, your organisation and the management of your teams, it is essential to start by calming down, to be serene with yourself, in order to be serene and calm with your teams, your clients, your suppliers, etc. Your calm and serenity will enable them to remain confident and committed.

Tips: the aim is to explore your fears, thoughts, behaviours and what your body is telling you in this dangerous situation. Be curious, don't reject what you feel. The better you know your "emotion", the better you can understand your needs. As Susan David pointed out, "to get through the emotions, you have to go to the emotions". This step is crucial because it is about accepting and freeing yourself from your fears. It is about emotional contagion and your ability to actively listen to and support your employees.

2. Responsibility of others

One of the recent studies conducted by Andreea Nicolau and colleagues in 2021 proves that executive coaching can be a beneficial tool during organisational change and can have a positive impact on managerial performance at interpersonal, intrapersonal and organisational levels. The results show that executive coaching can increase self-efficacy, improve goal-setting strategy and achievement, build resilience and reduce stress - variables that affect performance and competencies involved in organisational change.

Based on the overall results, leaders should consider executive coaching to support them during organisational change. In addition, coaching skills can be learned and integrated into the leader's behaviour to help them better navigate through difficult times.

2.1 Explore options and focus on planning

Lower stress levels are partly associated with improved planning skills.

Leaders who are open to exploring options with their teams and who encourage initiative to meet their need for autonomy and competence and stimulate their internal motivation. Employees feel empowered by having choice and responsibility for their actions, which leads to increased motivation and overall performance.

Tips: To help employees develop strategies and actions, mastering certain coaching skills can be the key to good performance. Some of these coaching skills include

  • Help others to integrate new awareness, insight or learning into their action plans and behaviours,
  • Join in designing empowering actions and measures that incorporate and build on learning and insights,
  • help to identify potential outcomes or lessons learned from the actions identified for each stage of the plan,
  • Invite others to consider how to move forward, including resources, support and potential barriers.

2.2 Create a safe space to interact

When we are authentically present, communicating and listening in a way that shows consideration and appreciation of the value of others, we create high-quality connections that in turn energise and energise the workplace. The ability to create a supportive and safe environment that fosters trust and respect is a skill that can help leaders provide their employees with a sense of "safe ground" from which to explore and meet challenges with confidence.

Tips: Start by being truly present. Show your attention by focusing your eyes on the other person to create intimacy. Adopt a relaxed posture and try to synchronise with the other person's body language to establish a mutual connection. Focus all your attention on the other person by showing interest in what they want to say, their feelings, thoughts and actions.

This increases the individual's sense of security, generating neural resonance and attenuating unproductive limbic responses. From this safe space, an individual can adopt less defensive positions and can easily begin to explore new ideas and opportunities.

2.3 Give recognition and encouragement.

This practice creates a favourable context for the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs of competence and relationship, thus leading to increased motivation and commitment.

The research suggests that managers who scored high on frequent recognition and encouragement achieved a 42% increase in productivity compared to managers with the lowest score.

Tips: You can use tools such as VIA Character Strengths to recognise and identify the strengths of others. You can start a meeting or email your employees with an appreciative introduction related to the character strength they have shown in their actions. Then you can invite them to think about how they can use their character strengths for the challenge at hand.

2.4 Create a common vision

Vision, whether individual or shared, motivates individuals, teams and organisations to move from the current situation to the desired situation. The desired image of the future, the hope for the future, attracts positive emotions. Research has shown that positive emotions can expand and develop our resources, stimulate our creativity and learning orientation, increase the level of optimism about the future, openness to behavioural change, altruistic and cooperative behaviour and improve decision-making. In addition, positive emotional states are associated with health benefits, such as improved immune system, cardiovascular health and reduced risk of depression.

Tips: invite employees to send an email entitled "Letter from the future". The task is to write a letter back (to themselves) from that future point (the desired future), describing how well things have turned out, what positive emotions they are experiencing and what advice they might have for themselves in the present.

This exercise provides an opportunity to formulate an ideal vision of the future, effective personal expectations, and intentions and helps to define meaningful goals that increase motivation.

Additional tools

KISS to assess and decide on an action plan with your team

Get your team together and consider "What do we want to keep, improve, start and stop doing in these times of crisis?

K = Keep Doing ➔ keep

I = Improve ➔ To improve

S = Start doing ➔ Begin

S = Stop doing ➔ stop doing

Self-management support tables

I. Fill in the table below

1. Fears
2. Thoughts
3. Body
4. Behaviour
Name your fears  …. - …. - …. - …. - ….. - …..
Name the thoughts that generate fear in you - …  - …  - …  - ….  - ……  - ….
Name the tensions you feel in your body :  - ….  - …  - ..  - …  - …  - …
Name your behaviours related to each of your fears   - ….  - ….  - ….  - …  - …

II. Sort your fears by category: Professional, Personal

Personal fears
Professional fears
-…. -… -….
-….  -…  -….

III. List your values, your vision and your professional and personal missions. Finally, draw up an action plan:

Values - What is really important for you today in this context?
Vision - What is your vision for you and your lifeboat?
Mission - What is your mission? What impact do you want to have? As a leader/manager, your teams/families/friends need you even more and will remember you after the storm.
Action plan - What do you want to do to face your fears and honour your values and missions?
-…. -….. -…..
-…. -….. -…..