“How do you continue to work effectively when you wonder if you are the next one out the door?”  The client who asked that question was worn out from dealing with one unanticipated change after another and trying to keep the morale in his unit at a better than acceptable level. After such a statement we often hear, “It’s no fun anymore.” It is even more difficult to keep others motivated when our own feelings are pulling us toward the exit. There is a problem when numbers of managers come to believe they can’t receive adequate gratification from working in such an organization.

What is the economic impact on an organization when significant numbers of its management are “grinding it out” instead of feeling wholly involved in tackling new and complex challenges? From team-building work, we know that people get more mixed messages and teams must spend more time on relationships when too many of their members are distressed. Such management groups will not be as focused on the organization’s work as they could be.

It is not just the constant changes that distress leaders; it is the kinds of changes. Cost cutting and letting people go isn’t fun for a caring person. The contradictions inherent in telling some people they have to go, and trying to keep the morale up in those who stay is a source of emotional turmoil. This emotional turmoil can be exhausting. Hurting people is no fun.

Leaders will hurt people in difficult economic times. That is just a harsh reality, yet there need not be so much despair when working in tough times. Individuals can tend to their personal needs and work to build support for themselves. Leaders can support the individuals’ efforts—and more. During such times leadership can:

  • Tie the current difficult work to an infectious vision and a credible strategy to obtain it.
  • Work with the emotional issues instead of being intimidated by them.
  • Communicate (with more than just words) that they care about the pain, even if they can’t do anything to stop it now.
  • Be consistent over time and be consistent with each other.
  • Do what is necessary to care for themselves.
  • Find some way to laugh occasionally.

Another different leader who faced organizational problems as serious as those of the client quoted in the beginning said, “You know, I look forward to working on these challenges. Anyone can manage during good times. I’m eager to see how well I do on this test.” It wasn’t that he never felt discouraged, or angry, or embarrassed about his organization’s problems. It was that those feelings were just part of the challenge he wanted to master. And he did it so well that over a decade later his former subordinates and peers are still talking about his masterful leadership during tough times.