How to be an effective boss in a recession

Mark Topley explains some of the things great bosses will do in a recession that will set them apart.

Mark Topley explains some of the things great bosses will do in a recession that will set them apart.

Pretty much everyone I speak to at the moment agrees that it’s tough out there. Whether they are clients, fellow coaches, CEOs, managers or the fantastic people who work in dental practices, we all agree that we’re facing more challenges than usual.

The ongoing pressures on wellbeing and the economy of the post-pandemic landscape are writ large – rising costs, staff shortages, quiet quitting – the list goes on. 

So, if you’re a leader in a business, how can you be an effective boss in the midst of so much uncertainty?

One of my favourite quotes is from the late Sam Walton, the founder of the global retail giant Walmart. When asked in 1991, ‘what do you think about the recession?’ he responded, ‘I thought about it and decided not to participate.’

Although this may appear a flippant remark, Walton is absolutely right. Although we can’t control the external factors of the recession, our success or failure will depend on what we choose to do about it. 

Chuck Swindoll is quoted as saying: ‘Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it’.

This is the most important piece of advice I ever received, and a key lesson that I teach to clients. When things happen, what are we going to do about it? As leaders in a recession, great bosses will do a number of things that will set them apart.

Define the narrative

You must ‘confront the brutal facts of your reality, but commit to an unwavering belief that you will get through’. The Stockdale paradox is named after James Stockdale, a veteran of the Vietnam War prisoner of war camps.

He observed during his incarceration what made the difference between those who survived and those who didn’t. Many prisoners died because they either failed to accept the position they were in or set a timescale for their rescue.

And when those arbitrary deadlines passed, they lost hope and died. The ones who survived were those who accepted their situation but retained a hope that they would get out. 

So, the first thing to take on board is that there’s a new normal. Get used to it. Confront the brutal facts of your reality. But also commit to an unwavering belief that you will find a way through. Don’t attach a timescale or conditions, but decide right now that you will find a way.

Show up for people

When times are hard, your people need to see you. You need to be present for them, whether that’s physically or emotionally. 

One-to-ones are critical. As much as you can, you need to make both informal and arranged one-to-ones a part of your routine. Checking in to see how people are doing and going beyond the ‘I’m fine’ responses is important, because the likelihood is people will not be immediately forthcoming. 

Find out what they are enjoying and not enjoying, what is frustrating them and how you can help. Be present, not distant with your team, especially in the next three months.

Make changes where you can – where you have an opportunity to make life easier for your team, act on it. The more you can demonstrate that you understand the ongoing challenges that people have in other areas by making work as straightforward as possible, the better.

Maintain boundaries. Impose boundaries on your team’s behalf and show that you are in their corner when it comes to boundaries between work and personal time. You should address issues such as answering calls, Whatsapp or emails after hours. Define what an after-hours emergency actually is.

Protect your team’s wellbeing. A number of team members I have spoken to believe that quiet quitting is an essential part of protecting their mental health. However, this step is unnecessary if you choose to proactively address peoples’ needs. 

When you prioritise mental, physical and emotional health, your team will feel less need to defend themselves against potential harm by pulling back professionally.

Look after yourself

For the internal side of life, there are things that become even more important to me at times like this. Practising gratitude. Making sure I exercise and get outside. Having fun with family and friends. This feeds the mind and the soul. And a healthy mind, body and soul are what you need to get through a tough time.

Plan when you’ll ‘worry’. Setting aside time to think through your worst-case scenario (and best case) is also important. Rather than letting the thoughts of what you might have to do if X, Y or Z happens to wander unrestrained around your mind all day (or night), get your thoughts down on paper. 

Invite your team to creatively problem solve with you. After all, we are all in this together. As a coach of mine once encouraged me, book a time to worry about what might happen, write it down, and then get back to work.

Be a great boss

One of the biggest challenges of the past three years is that almost every headline and social media post has eroded trust. Trust of leaders and institutions has taken a hit. 

Although you can’t control what is outside your business, it’s critical that you proactively rebuild trust with your team. Tell the truth, build relationships, show that you care in both words and actions, cast a compelling vision, over-communicate, set the tone and be the example. 

You need to be the leader your team needs, especially in a recession, and you need to consistently develop your leadership skills, knowledge and confidence. 

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