Big waves of change and disruption seem to keep coming. The latest – a recession. Just one more disruption in what is now a long series of hard events. If my own work is any indication, many leaders are facing the same challenges across many different businesses and countries. They struggle to find enough people to keep their doors open. They face supply chain problems. People are breaking down at work and quitting on the spot. To add insult to injury, their bosses are asking them to grow the top and bottom line in the face of hiring freezes, travel bans, budget cuts and layoffs. Sound familiar?

A colleague recently reminded me about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. She remarked that now, more than ever, we need to get back to basics, to attune ourselves and our clients to some pretty central needs. In Maslow’s terms: safety, belonging and esteem.

This is what we see many of the successful leaders we work with are doing now to get back to the basics.

Acknowledge what’s real.

These leaders are not sugar coating the very real challenges that they and their teams are facing. They are being as open and transparent as they can about these issues and what they mean for the business and the team. This creates a sense of both safety and belonging by removing the mystery of what they are thinking and making it ok to acknowledge things that aren’t going well. Safety in the form of trust, as in, “you trust me enough to be transparent.” Belonging in that “we are in this together.”

Focus on the practical and the possible.

When the pressure is on, people tend to obsess about everything that is going wrong – what can’t get done in the face of budget cuts, layoffs, lack of resources and time. Great leaders are instilling a focus on what can be done. They keep it simple. Set priorities. Clear the clutter for their teams. Build a rhythm of completing the projects, tasks and activities that are important and achievable. Getting things done helps build esteem in individuals and on teams and is progress in face of uncertainty.

Celebrate wins.

As their teams complete these practical and possible projects, today’s great leaders take time to celebrate accomplishments. In person and on Zoom, they make space not only to give recognition to their people, but also to create an in environment where employees give one another recognition. One leader has introduced an interesting and important twist: their team celebrates mistakes, things that did not go as planned. They use this as an opportunity to learn for the future and make it safe to fail. Whether these teams are celebrating wins or mistakes, they are doing it together and finding that it builds belonging and esteem.

Find the silver lining.

Every challenge produces a new opportunity. A client recently shared that their team had been cut in half, leaving everyone worrying about how to continue to deliver on their commitments. They quickly realized there was no way they could do everything. After engaging with key stakeholders, they were surprised to learn that much of what they were doing was not even really wanted or needed. The list of true needs was actually shorter, more doable, and more satisfying to both the team and their stakeholders, since everyone could create value more quickly and feel a sense of progress. These interactions also produced new, more efficient ways of working, and a greater sense of safety, belonging and esteem.

Stay close to their people.

Perhaps the most important thing these leaders are doing in these turbulent times is to continue building relationships with their people. They do not cancel their 1:1’s because “everyone is so busy.” They treat these meetings as sacred and use this time to connect to their people, listen to their challenges, and offer support and guidance. High performing leaders learned this lesson very early in the pandemic, in the sudden move to virtual work, and have not forgotten. Being there and being present is a game changer for all involved.

In this time of unprecedented change, one thing has not changed: people leave their jobs when they don’t feel a close connection to their manager or to the company. In fact, a recent Sloan Management Review analysis concluded that a “toxic culture” was 10 times more important in predicting turnover than pay. The suggestions above to ensure that your teams feel safety, belonging and esteem, are a few of the ways that leaders can keep their best people and persevere as we ready for the next wave of change.

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