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Communication | D.E.I.B. | Leadership

How to Lead Through Chaos

Originally published in Fast Company.

Your team members who responded to crises may now be ready for leadership.

From divisive Supreme Court decisions and skyrocketing inflation there seems to be no shortage of chaos these days. And where there’s chaos, there’s stress.

Everyone reacts to stressful situations differently. Some people avoid stressful situations, opting to drown them out with constant work. Others struggle to concentrate and maintain their usual productivity levels.

Not only are leaders living through this chaos themselves, but they’re tasked with effectively leading their stressed-out teams through it as well. Leading through chaos is certainly a challenge for new managers, but even seasoned leaders can be thrown for a loop by novel events like a global pandemic.

Whether you’re a new leader, an employee who aspires to leadership, or you’re a long-time manager facing new challenges, these are our approaches and best practices for leading through chaos.

SEE THE LEADERSHIP OPPORTUNITIES THAT CHAOS CAN CREATE

Uncertain and chaotic times create opportunities for new leaders to emerge. Employees who are looking to advance into leadership roles can look for opportunities in chaos. This is particularly true for diverse employees who want to offer a unique perspective on fresh challenges.

While it’s never an employee’s job to educate their organization, you can try to help your company find it’s voice during chaotic times. This doesn’t mean you have to go straight to leadership. If your company has a Business Employee Resource Group, start there. BERGs can offer people a space to feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts, opinions, and experiences.

If you feel comfortable, it’s also ok to press leaders and mentors about how the company is (or isn’t) responding to an issue. Ask them how they see the company’s values playing out in current challenges. Ask them what behaviors and actions are associated with those values—how the company plans to not just talk the talk, but actually walk the walk.

ACKNOWLEDGE THE CHAOS

The worst thing leaders can do is try to pretend that what’s going on in the world isn’t relevant to work. Your team is made up of human beings who are unavoidably impacted by the chaos around them.

This doesn’t mean you have to deliver a well-practiced speech on the state of the world, though. Acknowledging chaos can be as simple as telling your team or colleagues that you recognize that there’s a lot going on. By acknowledging the situations that follow people into work, you’re letting them know that you understand their life doesn’t end when they log on or walk through the door.

TREAT INDIVIDUALS AS INDIVIDUALS

Remember to treat individuals as individuals. Even the closest of team members are still individual humans with different heads, hearts, and lives. Everyone is going to react to chaos or stress differently. Plus, many organizations, even if they’re based in the U.S., have a global team. Not everyone is American even if they live in the United States.

Avoid making assumptions about how people might think, feel, or react to a situation. No matter how much we might think we know someone, we never really know what they’re going through or thinking through in their lives. Don’t assume, for example, that all women are pro-choice or that men don’t care about the impact of the Roe v. Wade decision.

As leaders, it’s not our place to assume or judge. It is our place to be thoughtful. One way to lead thoughtfully is by limiting the off-the-cuff comments we make about what’s going on in the world. You never know how someone might be impacted by their leader’s opinion.

This is also a great space for team members to highlight their leadership skills. If you know someone on your team is struggling, reach out to them and create space for them to share how they’re feeling and coping. Be their ally and advocate in spaces where they don’t feel comfortable sharing themselves. Everyone has the potential to be a leader. These can be the first steps of establishing yourself as an emerging leader at your company.

TAKE THE “TWO EARS, ONE MOUTH” APPROACH

There’s a reason that humans have two ears and one mouth—it’s more important to listen than to speak. Rather than feeling like you need to be the one making statements, ask open questions instead. And be prepared to actively listen to the answers.

Ask questions that start with “what” or “how” to ensure that they’re open-ended. This gives people a chance to both express themselves and share what they’re thinking, feeling, and going through. The more you know, the more empathetic you can be to someone’s struggles.

The most important part is actively listening to the answers people give. If you ask questions but don’t seem to care about what’s being shared as a result, you can quickly come across as disingenuous.

CHECK IN WITH TEAM MEMBERS FREQUENTLY

When life gets chaotic, you might consider upping the frequency of check-ins between you and your team members. Making extra space for the people under your charge shows that you care about them and their wellbeing.

Whether you want to modify existing one-on-ones, create entirely new check-ins, or take a different approach altogether, the key is to ensure that you’re available to simply talk and listen. This is especially crucial if you have someone on your team who is a member of a marginalized or targeted community. It’s important to check in with them not just about how they’re doing, but about how their family and loved ones are doing as well.

Always ask what you can do to help or support the people on your team who share their struggles with you. It might be as straightforward as simply listening to them or it might mean something more hands-on like modifying their schedule.

The ultimate goal of leading through chaos is to work together with your team members to find a way through the stress of the moment. Committing to putting best practices into place even during trying times gives you the tools to navigate the setbacks and challenges that come with chaos. These strategies help leaders (and emerging leaders!) establish and maintain long-term success and stability, leading to better workdays in both “normal” and tough times.