Leading Your Team in Stressful Situations
27 April, 2022
A Last-Minute Ask Turns Into Chaos
I was managing an app team in a company with upwards of 10,000 employees. One day, the CEO emailed a VP concerning a major performance issue with our native iOS app. The problem needed to be fixed in less than two days, and the task was delegated to the app team.
We identified the root cause, but the real work had yet to be done. We needed to update every image and request, deploy each image on the entire app, and do this in a high-quality manner. It was a race against the clock. On top of the workload, the email thread had turned into a whirlwind of frustration and accusation. It wasn't constructive. The team was visibly stressed and anxious.
How to Galvanize Your Team Around a Common Goal
STEPPING IN AND SETTING THE WHEELS IN MOTION
The first thing I did was step in and pause all the noise. I reassured all the app teams that were affected and told my higher-ups that we could sort out this problem. I drew out a game plan and voiced my faith in our team, while still acknowledging that it wasn't an ideal situation.
I reached out to some of my superiors and shared that I'm happy to organize this situation. I requested two things. First, we needed a room where the entire team could work together. Second, I asked the CEO and our leaders to show up and share their appreciation for the extra effort that people were putting in to get this done. That really made a difference in motivating everyone and feeling like their work mattered.
So, we got the room. I had my leadership jump in. We put up a TV that showed a status report of everything that needed to get done and we checked off boxes as the day progressed. We brought in food; we played some music; my wife even came by to bring us cookies. Writing code wasn't part of my job description at the time, but I jumped in and started coding to help in whatever way I could. Several of my peers joined me in this.
BEING THE VOICE OF STABILITY AMIDST CHAOS
When you notice chaos, it's your job as a leader to volume it down. Take a step back, assess the situation, and figure out how you can be the voice of stability. It’s easy to fall into the chaos— it can even be fun to feed into it with the rest of the crowd. But that’s not helpful.
When we had to fix our performance issue in one day, my head was in the same place as the rest of the team. I was frustrated and annoyed. Echoing my team's dissatisfaction would have been the easy route. However, it was important for me as a leader to take a step back and say, "The situation is what it is. I need to be the voice of calm because that's what my team is looking for."
Legitimizing your team's feelings is another key point. Instead of silencing or belittling people's frustrations, accept the situation and make it clear that you're in the same boat. Diffuse the chaos by being honest yet constructive.
TAKING OWNERSHIP OF THE SITUATION
One of the things that adds to the chaos is passing on the responsibility to someone else. When superiors merely give out orders and assign tasks without taking on any of the work, it feeds into a toxic environment.
As a leader, you need to internalize the problem, make it your own, and be part of the solution from beginning to end. This is another key point: saying that you will get this done together because it's a collective effort. Don't ask your team to do something without playing an integral part. Go above and beyond to help your teammates.
BEING GENUINE IN MOTIVATING YOUR TEAM
You have to look at a difficult situation, weed out the bad, and cultivate a positive mindset. But what's critical is: that it has to be genuine. You can't just say, "Yeah, this is tough but here's a five-dollar gift card." In my experience, the extrinsic motivation that comes from a one-off reward is weak and fleeting.
What ultimately motivates people is a sense of solidarity and a shared mission. There's a rush that comes from being in a room filled with people whom you don't always work with and collaborating to tackle a common problem. Whereas sitting by yourself in front of a computer in this situation can feel very isolating.
That day, when people were pulled out of their normal routine to come together, work towards a shared goal with food and music... It was an effective way to turn a stressful, crunch time situation into a fun environment— almost a party, even. The sense of togetherness combined with the recognition from our higher-ups were key elements that helped the team accomplish what we needed. And those two things are enough to get incredible results from people, even in tough situations.
By the end of the day, people were in great spirits. We got all the work done, which was a huge achievement. Years later, people still talk about that day as one of their fondest memories and I feel the same way. It was a wholesome environment where everybody was rowing in the same direction, working as a team.
Managing Stressful Situations
- Step back from the chaos, identify the cause, empathize with the team's frustrations, and take ownership of the situation. Be mindful that a big part of that ownership is being there and walking that path with your team.
- You have to try and point to the positive in a situation. When you think of ways to shift a negative situation into a positive one, you get incredible results. But it has to be genuine. People can sniff out disingenuousness very easily.
- Asynchronous communication works very well until it doesn't. If engagement drops, it's probably due to the format of the discussions. When this happens, organize a face-to-face meeting, whether that's virtual or in-person. I find that email and Slack can get depersonalized very quickly. So find ways to remind everyone that there are actual people behind the avatars— people who are trying to solve the same problem as them. Seeing another person's face brings out the humanity of the situation, and that helps to introduce calm into chaos.
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