Leading in a Decline

drain-1254056I’ve been working with a large global organization that has laid off 10,000 people in the past 12 months and is desperately trying not to repeat that number in the coming months. So I currently have an inside seat on the challenges and opportunities that go along with such disruption. With the huge changes that are inevitably coming in the global market –no, business as we know it is not sustainable– it makes sense to learn how to lead when old ways of doing business go down the drain. Here are some of the most important tips I have learned so far.

1) Remember that we need the change

Human beings, like all animals, are designed to resist change. Change is inefficient since it means we need to unlearn old habits and patterns and install new ones. This process inevitably takes more energy and increases the risk of mistakes. And our resistance is even stronger when the security of the old way of doing things is gone.

Recently, I’ve been working in a start-up team where I am required to start using an online calendar for all my appointments. This creates angst for me because as I make this change, I know I am much more likely to make mistakes with my appointments. My clients rightfully rely on me to show up on time for coaching sessions, so this change affects my ability to provide good quality service and represents a threat to my reputation for reliability. I get a sinking feeling as I contemplate this change and I feel an urge to resist. But even though the risks are true, logically this change is the right thing to do for the whole team.

We cannot change without risk, and we absolutely need to change, and quickly. No one can be sure which is the best route forward, but we know for sure that it is not the road we are on.

So I recommend investigating your current beliefs around change and installing some new ones that can encourage you to allow more mistakes, see the uncomfortable process as needed and important, and increase your willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things.

2) Raise your moment-to-moment self-awareness

The key to making difficult changes with poise is present-moment self-awareness. In the example above, if I am present enough to notice my own visceral resistance to change, I’m immediately able to see that it is only a physical/emotional reaction and not ‘the truth’. I can distance myself from my reaction and step back enough to see the whole situation with my rational thinking mind. With that presence, I’m able to make a much better decision about how to respond to the perceived threat.

How aware are you of your current physical and emotional state? Many of us are able to feel our bodies and emotions in moments of quiet concentration such as when you’re reading this article. In challenging situations, we tend to shift our focus outside towards external threats, so it takes quite a bit of practice to be able to stay aware of what’s happening inside as well. This ability is a mature leadership strength that is a tremendous asset in challenging times as it corresponds to a steady capacity to make better decisions. You can read more about developing awareness for leaders in my article from 2011.

3) Reduce pressure

Declining business and the resulting changes inevitably bring tremendous pressure. My clients in the shrinking organization I mentioned above are rapidly re-organizing: working long hours to draw up very complex work plans while colleagues around them are suddenly moved to new roles or retrenched. Workloads increase while jobs are cut and everyone has to play new and unfamiliar roles. Personal financial worries and fears around loss of status occupy critical bandwidth in the team. It is virtually impossible to stand steady while the water swirls around your feet and down the drain.

And yet reducing pressure is one of the most important roles leaders can play in times like this. Big decisions require steady minds and clear thinking. Pressure narrows thinking and costs energy.

Of course everyone is already doing their best to fix the problems that would relieve the pressure on the business. To reduce pressure more quickly and sustainably requires strategies that are outside the current normal way of doing business. There are two modes: 1) look at the thoughts and beliefs inside your head that increase your pressure, 2) consider your personal operating system of sleep, nutrition and exercise and the affects they have on your ability to withstand pressure.

Leaders need to start by working on their own resilience and also support their teams to do the same. What are you doing to reduce the pressure on your team?

4) Find the blessing in the situation

One of the primary roles of leadership is to keep people moving towards results. When times are tough, it’s very easy to fall into dwelling on the problems, sinking into hopelessness and demotivating ourselves and others. To counteract this trend, leaders need to continually tell sincere, positive stories that light the way ahead.

Telling positive stories about the tough situations we face requires the honesty to reflect privately on our own negative thinking and the willingness to find and practice new versions on how to see reality. None of the stories, positive or negative, are actually true. And sincere positive stories help everyone keep moving forward towards what we want.

5) Gratitude, not entitlement

One of the best quick shifts in thinking I’ve found in these situations is to take a view of gratitude instead of entitlement. As we are forced to let go of the blessings and advantages we have had so far in life, rather than feeling hard-done-by, try feeling grateful. You may notice an immediate shift to a positive view. Perhaps our steady jobs, professional status, conveniences of modern living, luxuries of travel and education are not given to us for life but are the blessings we have enjoyed for a brief time only. As a leader and for yourself, turning your attention daily to the things you are grateful for is a welcome balm.

6) Discover what your heart desires

During the most intense times of change, leaders need to focus their time and energy on the immediate work and to get sufficient rest and relaxation to stay resilient. But before long there will be personal choices to make. What role do you want to play in your newly reformed organization? Is there even a place for you? When these questions come up, which they eventually will, I strongly recommend not following blindly where the organization would have you go, or even where your path thus far might predict for you, but instead take a closer look at what you most deeply want.

The changes happening in the world now give us the opportunity to shift towards a better way of doing things, not just a reformation of the same old thing. And real change comes from individual choices. In the midst of this change, we must find a way to step back into ourselves to make absolutely sure we are doing what is most important to us, in this one life.

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