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Leading teams in difficult times


Is your team under pressure?  Neil Twogood gives 10 tips to help you provide more effective leadership. These points should help you to ensure that your team is able to collaborate and to perform, he says, even in these challenging times.

It’s a paradox of teamwork that in stressful or challenging situations - when there’s the utmost need to collaborate - the team members will often stop behaving like a team. Instead, they’ll start to behave as a group of individuals.  You see this in sport. When the going gets tough, instead of passing the ball and working as a team, the ‘star players’ will desperately take risks and try to make something happen by themselves. Far from being productive, this can actually make things worse.  

The same applies to teams in business. When team members are clear about what they’re doing - and they’re rationally and emotionally committed to the team cause - then engagement will be high. But in difficult times, the task becomes more of a focus. The team members stop delegating, they try to take more responsibility on themselves, they over-assert their position and sometimes they confront or compete with each other to prove their value. Needless to say, the usual result is a nosedive in performance.

Practical points for leaders

In these difficult times, here are 10 tips that can help you ensure that your team maintains its ability to perform:

  1. Monitor individuals.  All teams should strive to balance team achievement (what we have to do) with team development (how we work together). Collaboration is the key. This is more than just ‘cooperation’, as it demands more personal energy and emotional commitment. Greater collaboration helps teams to retrieve a difficult situation, regain the initiative when times are tough or win when they’re not playing well. The irony is that to achieve a high level of collaboration, you have to keep your eye on the individuals. If someone is worried about their job or their role in the team, their focus becomes much more internal. They may become quiet or withdrawn or may be overly assertive. They’ll certainly become less effective within the team. As a leader, you should be noticing this and asking what you can do to help. It could just involve a quiet word, along the lines of: “You used to do x but now we’re experiencing y, what’s going on?” Or you may need to manage the workload of the team members. For example, if someone doubts their value in the team, you may want to boost their self confidence by demonstrating your belief in them and giving them specific actions that will help them see their role as valuable. Alternatively use the energy in their assertive behaviour to produce positive results rather than internal competition.
  2. Don’t try to be the ‘star player’ yourself.  Your role is to promote the effectiveness of the team. In a crisis situation, there may be a need for directive behaviour. But after the crisis has been resolved, the leader should gather the team together to consider what actions were taken, how effective these were, the learning points and how a similar situation would be handled, should it ever arise. The important thing is to be aware that directive behaviour diminishes the sense of responsibility within the team. If you’ve taken over, your team members will be reluctant to show initiative or to take responsibility.
  3. Help people to recognise what’s outside of their control.  If you knew exactly what was going to happen and you were confident you could cope with anything, it’s unlikely you’d feel particularly stressed. But when you don’t know what’s around the corner or if you fear a particular outcome (failure or redundancy?), you’ll feel stressed. In buoyant times, people retain more optimism and more self belief. They think: ‘If I lose my job, I’ll get another one’.  But in difficult times, people’s fears grow in magnitude. They tend to doubt themselves more and often this results in stress or angst about imagined futures. As a leader, you can help people to focus on reality as well as what is actually causing their stress. Ask them to make a list of what they’re worried about.  There’s not much you or they can do to fix the global economy but there may be things that can be done to refocus the business or to better support customers. Set an example by admitting that you’re finding it difficult to cope with uncertainty but you’re focusing on what you can influence. Help your team members to draw a boundary of what is inside their control. Whatever is outside of that boundary is outside of their scope of influence, so help them to acknowledge this and focus instead on where they can make a difference.
  4. Check back to the vision or guiding purpose of the team. As a leader it’s always useful to consider what you’re trying to achieve and how the team is working towards that goal. It may be worth revalidating this, to ensure that the team’s purpose has some meaning. It’s difficult to get motivated if you’re working on something that has no meaning for you. People are much more engaged when they feel they are working together to really achieve something that they believe is important and for which their individual contribution is appreciated.  
  5. Articulate what you want the team to be known for.  Ask your team to identify how they’d like customers or stakeholders to describe the team and its performance. What do you want people to be saying about you?  If you want to be known as the most competent team, then consider what the most competent team would feel like or look like? What behaviours would be seen? Get the team to describe these. Then ask how well you currently stack up against those behaviours - and what needs to change to move you closer to the desired state. Articulating these behaviours and success factors is a positive step towards achieving collaboration.
  6. Maintain a balance between teamwork and the task.  In challenging times, the default reaction for team members is to focus on the tasks they have to achieve, almost to the exclusion of how well they work together. But there has to be a balance here. A team that focuses solely on achievement might get to a point before finding that everyone’s going in different directions; whereas a team that is focused purely on ‘how well do we work together?’ may not achieve very much. As the leader, your role is to help the team members to achieve their goals whilst at the same time ensuring that they’re building the ability to collaborate.
  7. Become more self-aware. Remember that leadership is essentially the experience that others have of you.  It’s been said that: ‘If you think you’re a leader and no one is following you, you’re just going for a walk’. Without self awareness, it’s unlikely that you’ll fully appreciate the impact you’re having on others. It’s difficult to be too self aware. You can be oversensitive but that’s not the same. Being aware of the emotions that are produced within you gives you the ability to ask yourself useful questions such as: Is this the emotion I want? What is causing this emotion? How can I use it?  
  8. Manage your emotional state.  Research shows that the mood and behaviour of the leader drives the mood and behaviour of everyone else in the team*. Maybe you’ve experienced the inspirational impact of working for an upbeat manager or the debilitating drain of toiling for a toxic grouch. The former makes everything feel possible, the latter makes work gruelling. Everyone watches the boss and takes their emotional cues from him/her - and the domino effect ripples throughout the team. Because you set the tone for the culture or work environment - and your mood is quite literally contagious - you have a responsibility in difficult times to project confidence, energy and a positive attitude. It’s not simply a case of putting on a brave face. You have to be authentic - your actions have to match your internal feelings or you’ll appear insincere.  
  9. Look for the opportunities. There’s a Chinese proverb that says: ‘When the winds of change blow, there are those who build a shelter and those who build a windmill’. In every circumstance, there are always opportunities if you can find them. Even if you’re forced to make redundancies, there will still be goals that you can achieve with those who remain.
  10. Consider coaching. Coaching is an effective vehicle for developing leadership skills. Executive coaching can help the leader and/or team members to raise their awareness of the impact they have on others, to think through issues and how they can be even more effective, to gain a new perspective and to increase their desire to take action.

Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist. SME managers can now gain a grant of up to £1,000, from the Learning and Skills Council to use Neil for coaching, mentoring and leadership development, if their company employs between five and 249 staff. Performance Consultants undertakes all administration to apply for the funding. For further information, please call Neil on 020 7415 4055

* Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, Harvard Business Review, December 2001.

Neil Twogood is chief operating officer at

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