5 Leadership Lessons from Imploding Teams

Every company goes through rough patches. Recently at Dell I watched teams implode because of low morale or just dissolve into thin air through attrition. From my observations, I learned some valuable lessons about leadership in times of adversity.

In no particular order, here are five things I learned that a leader can do to guide their team safely through choppy seas.

1. Leaders need to be human

We want to know that our leaders get discouraged and disappointed. We ache to feel like they can empathize with us. We want to feel like they are on our side, especially when things go badly. We want to feel like they are candid and forthright. Any appearance of duplicity really hurts morale. We don’t want them to make hopeful promises they can’t keep. We want to know they are vulnerable, too.

2. Leaders need to inspire

We assume our leaders have a perspective that we don’t, mostly because we really want them to. So, while a leader needs to be candid and human, they also need to inspire and at least imply that there is a bigger picture that gives them hope. They need to focus the people they lead on something that is worth working toward. Even when leaders don’t have inside information, they will have a perspective that the rest of the team won’t. We want them to confidently lead us with that vision. 

3. Communicate bad news

You can't hide bad news. It gets leaked. It spreads through rumors. The best thing a leader can do is to confront bad news head-on at the very outset. Frankly acknowledge the bad things, and take the opportunity to frame the discussion before anybody else can. That doesn't mean lying to sound optimistic. It just means pointing out the silver lining. People are sophisticated enough to understand complex situations. Not talking about something bad is worse for morale than announcing it clumsily.

4. Show people the future

People are willing to work through a rough patch if they think it will be worth it. I've observed that people understand if the company is in a tough situation, and they are often willing to show patience and give the company the benefit of the doubt. But if they feel like they won’t be any better off at the other end, they lose patience. People need to see that there is a payoff for getting through something difficult, not just that things will go right back to the way they were before. They need to feel like they are progressing. Otherwise they can’t justify being patient. 

Parenthetically, I've learned that when there is attrition, people who stay feel peer pressure to justify staying. If a leader can't provide that justification, it's unlikely the people they lead will stick around.

5. Exhibit trust

We infer so much meaning from how our leaders treat us. It's not unusual for a leader to either tighten the reins or to completely slacken their grip in times of crisis. We want to be coached, but we also want to feel like our coach thinks we’re making progress and is proud of us—not that they're afraid we’ll ruin everything if we’re left alone. We want to feel trusted and valued. "Micromanaging" is code for “you don’t trust me”. 

In short, I've learned that a struggling company doesn't have to lose its most skilled players. Even when negative market forces are outside of their control, a strong leader can still keep a team motivated and working together.

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