3 steps for leading in challenging times

As leaders we're called to do many different things. One of the most difficult is bringing the right leadership style during challenging times.

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Being a leader is never an easy job, although it's at its most difficult during challenging times. Your company might be experiencing market turmoil, an acquisition might be in the works with rumors swirling like leaves on a fall day, or your staff might be watching your every move as you dismiss one of their peers for reasons they don't fully understand or agree with. We're called on to be sympathetic ears, fearless generals charging the hill, and unflappable sources of calm at various times, sometimes during the same week.

Here are three simple steps to leading your team when times are tough.

Step 1: Assess the situation

Different situations call for different leadership styles, and the best leaders have an innate sense of whether to bring decisive action or reserved calm to a situation. If you're a newer leader or haven't yet cultivated this "sixth sense," take a moment to consider how your team is feeling at the moment. If there's confusion and lack of direction, decisive action may be the right course of action. If there are activities outside their control and influence, calm confidence and a positive message can keep the team moving forward.

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A bit of empathy can go a long way, and if you're still struggling to get a pulse on how your team is feeling, there's nothing wrong with asking some pointed questions of a few individuals. You'll likely need to dig a bit deeper than just asking "How's everything going," so try to focus on questions that might elicit more insightful responses. Ask them what they're excited about in their jobs, or what they think of the company's direction. Ask how some current event in your industry or the broader market might affect them, or how they're dealing with a new policy or procedure. Essentially, your goal is to get them talking and identify what would allow them to be more effective in their jobs in the immediate term.

Step 2: Set the tone

Once you have a read on the situation and understand what would allow your team to be more effective, you can set a tone that helps them move towards that better state. If your team is struggling due to an uncertain environment, reaffirm the certainty of things you can control, like the quality of their output, your attitude and demeanor, and the certainty that you'll fearlessly face the future with them. If there's a problem facing the team that's within your power to address, confidently identify the problem, create a plan of action, and execute it.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes leaders can make is setting the wrong tone for the situation. If a single team member is dragging the entire group down, taking weeks to calmly assess their performance and create a plan is the wrong approach. Similarly, if there are some slow changes in the market that require observation and careful planning, the wrong thing to do is immediately launch into action and make bold moves in the moment that appear haphazard and hasty due to the evolving nature of the challenge.

Just because an approach works in one situation does not mean it will work in all situations, so beware of letting a past success or two guide your response to every future situation. Just as each situation is different, so, too, should your tone be carefully considered for each scenario.

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Step 3: Model the right behavior

Once you understand the situation your team is facing and set the tone to guide them to a better place, model the behaviors you're seeking. If the situation calls for careful consideration, demonstrate this model when making important decisions. If your team has grown sloppy or makes careless mistakes, take responsibility as the leader and then demonstrate the quality you expect in your own work, and coach employees to do the same in theirs. If you've set the tone that certain behaviors won't be tolerated and a single team member continues to display those behaviors, take direct action to address the concern.

The bromide that "actions speak louder than words" applies, and even the best read on a situation and establishment of the proper tone will be quickly undone by not modeling the same behaviors you demand from your team. In fact, few things undermine a leader's credibility faster than demanding a standard that the leader themselves fails to embody.

Challenging situations test our leadership abilities and are usually highly stressful and personally taxing. However, leaders are not paid to shirk conflict or preside over high-performing, self-motivating, and self-monitoring teams. We're there to help our teams navigate challenging times, and hopefully, the three steps above will help you rise to the occasion.

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Image: fizkes, Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...