The potential of a recession on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic means that the usual strategies for managing in a downturn may no longer work — and make the situation worse. To get the most out of their teams without creating a destructive spiral, leaders must understand how to balance their desire to move the business along quickly with their employees’ psychological needs. In particular, there are three balances leaders need to get right: moving closer without suffocating others; moving faster without turning frantic; and taking on or assigning a bigger workload without sacrificing relationships.
“My days are full of turnabouts. I have to go back on promises, reshuffle priorities, and I second-guess too much. It’s wearing on me, and I feel like I am spending hard-earned goodwill,” a member of an executive leadership team told me in one of our sessions. “I want to pause for a moment and talk about how I can be a good leader in a bad economy.”
On paper, this person was being a good leader by enacting tried-and-tested strategies to prepare for an economic downturn: becoming more hands-on and moving closer to their team, setting a faster pace, and asking people to handle bigger workloads. But instead of releasing energy and instilling confidence, these moves were wearing the leader down — and their employees, too. In their effort to build a fortress, they felt like they were about to burn down the house.
This feeling may be familiar to executives and managers who are anticipating a recession on top of the aftershocks of the pandemic. The common thinking is that each crisis makes people stronger and more able to cope. But this is not the reality. Compounding crises tend to make people more vulnerable — and more shaky.
This shakiness poses a formidable challenge. It means that some of the normal crisis responses people turn to won’t work as intended. Indeed, if leaders use the standard playbook as-written, much like our executive at the beginning of this article, they actually risk setting off a destructive spiral and making the crisis worse.
To succeed as a leader in this moment, I suggest three key balances people need to get right: moving closer without suffocating others; moving faster without turning frantic; and taking on or assigning a bigger workload without sacrificing relationships.
Moving Closer Without Suffocating Others
When there are rumblings of an economic downturn, the first response from leaders is often to move closer. More meetings are called, more reporting is required, more detail goes into every conversation. This is quite natural — leaders want to understand what is going on. They want to help find answers. They want to make sure their teams are on track and doing what they can to fix the situation.
Psychologically, however, the impetus to move closer is often a need to feel in control. Moving closer is a risky maneuver and a double-edged sword. On the back of the pandemic, where teams have learned to operate independently and with less oversight, a boss looking over their shoulder can feel like outright distrust and disenfranchisement. It also draws their attention away from doing their job and on to “managing upwards.” The outcome may be stifling instead of stimulating.
Further, if leaders move too close, they clog up their own bandwidth with details and micro-management. The worst-case scenario is when a leader formally takes over their subordinates’ role because they believe they can do better. At a financial institution I was observing, for example, a top leader was so frustrated about the prospect of losing a large client that he marched into a meeting his team was having with them and interrupted the dialogue. He was short of breath, sweating, and agitated, and stood behind his employees to watch and ask questions. He later explained that he was only there to “secure that you do your job right” and to “fire up the crew.” It didn’t work; the company lost the client, citing “a hostile, immature and frantic environment that made them uncomfortable.” The team eventually dissolved, and good people quit their jobs.
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To be sure, there are some legitimate reasons to move closer, like when leaders want to ground their judgment in first-hand experience or signal support by showing up on the frontlines. But they must remember that the point of moving closer is to motivate, energize, and support; not control, disengage, or sow doubt. A balanced approach is “touch and go,” engaging with teams on the issues they face, but also not taking the weight off their shoulders and onto your own. A good test is to make sure you don’t end up with a laundry list of things you need to fix for the team, but rather that your team knows their laundry list and understand that they now have control of the steering wheel again.
Move closer — but don’t hover — and have a clear exit strategy. Once you have seen enough, give the power back to your employees.
Moving Faster Without Turning Frantic
The second typical response is a healthy bias for action. In times of crisis, leaders cannot sit on their hands; time is of the essence. You can almost feel it in the jittery pace of meetings, as well as in a leader’s tone of voice or restless demeanor.
However, there is a fine line between urgent and frantic. Leaders must remember that the pandemic has made many people more brittle, not more resilient. Stress and mental health issues have skyrocketed. As a result, while most people understand the need of speed in a crisis, their tolerance for “pushy” leadership is much lower than it might have been prior to 2020.
To address this, leaders should examine the psychological traps they tend to fall into when economic times get tough. One common one is that people think they have less time than they actually do, so they come up with imaginary and self-imposed deadlines. “We need a solution by the end of the month” may create urgency, but if the better solution is another few months away, imaginary deadlines can sacrifice value in exchange for the illusion of speed.
Add to this the fact that leaders often exhibit less tolerance for dissent when things get difficult. They tend to become more ego-centric, so when others object to an idea or proposal, it’s quickly interpreted as resistance and obstruction, not as reflection or constructive feedback. Sooner or later, this pattern of behavior will lead to disengagement from the team and a sense of “false consensus” on ideas. While this might result in faster decisions, it can also hamper independent thinking and prevent better solutions from coming to the fore.
A balanced approach is to create a deliberate delay between ideas, decisions, and actions. Think of it as impulse control by design: Create structures and processes where you allow others (the board, external advisors, peers, or good colleagues) to vet and question your plans. You don’t have time or patience for endless bureaucracy, so design these processes to be fast and informal. Sometimes they can be as short as a quick phone call where you spell out what you want to do and test the immediate reaction of someone you trust.
Increasing Workloads Without Sacrificing Relationships
The third typical response to economic downturns is that leaders become more task-oriented and less mindful of relationships. Just like the frustrated executive earlier in this article, many leaders will ask their teams to take on a bigger workload. To-do list gets longer and longer because “more” feels better and “more” feels like responsible leadership. You might also hear versions of the statement, “We need to fix problems now, not coddle people.” As a result, off-sites are canceled, talent programs are put on hold, perks are cut, and courteousness and empathy go down the drain.
However, relationship work is not coddling; it is hard-core performance management. We have learned from the aftermath of the pandemic that good people rarely quit or “quiet quit” because their job becomes more difficult or because times turn harder. They quit because they lose faith in their leaders, their colleagues, or the future of the company. They withdraw because they feel unfairly treated or neglected. Yes, people go to work to complete the mission and finish their tasks, but more than anything they go to work because of the connection and community they feel they have with their colleagues. So, continue to invest in relationship-building. Maybe downgrade on the luxury, but still spend the time investing in creating connections. Go for five-star content, impact, and interaction, but in a three-star setting.
Part of doing this involves maintaining a balanced approach around relationship and task priorities. Be transparent with your team: What’s the nature and quality of work relationships you expect to see during a tough period? What kind of challenges and supports do you expect of each other? What kind of relationship compromises are you not willing to make, even if they would deliver short-term results? Ultimately, if you find yourself in an extended downturn, take a step back with the team and redefine what success looks like – and not only for the work tasks themselves.
. . .
Being a good leader in a bad economy has always been challenging. This time around is even more so because the usual burden of a bad economy may be compounded by the emotional disruptions of the pandemic. This means that leaders must turn the pages of the standard crisis playbook with care and moderation.
Leaders cannot stand still in the face of an economic downturn, but their bias for action and their instinctive responses — moving closer, moving faster, and increasing workload — must be harnessed. If these natural and legitimate leadership moves are not made in a balanced way, leaders may actually amplify the crisis.