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10 ways to lead in sudden turbulence

The CEO (or your boss) has been sacked and escorted off the premises; a takeover or company-wide restructure has been announced; your organisation has just gone into receivership or suffered a major PR disaster.

These types of sudden and significant changes can turn an otherwise normal day into extreme chaos. It’s organisational turbulence at its best (or worst) and fear, uncertainty and doubt go into overdrive.


A few years ago a merger between two companies resulted in 600 leadership positions being ‘synergised’ down to 300. My job was one of the 600 and at the time, I was also leading one of the core integration teams. This meant I needed to be positive and upbeat about the merger while not knowing whether I was going to have a job at the end of it. It was tough.


In The Thrive Cycle: Unlock The Adaptive Organisation Within, I share a story told by H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of the Republic of Nigeria. Some of his words are particularly relevant here. He says:


‘…a leader must be a leader and the job of a leader is to lead. Lead in all aspects of the form’

It's so simple on paper, but how can you do this when you are directly affected by the change and don’t really know what’s going on? Here are 10 strategies to help you manage yourself and give your people the leadership they need.


  1. Breathe - Breathing slowly and deeply has physical and psychological benefits. First, it helps to counter the instinctive shallow breathing that kicks-in as part of our natural fight/flight response. And second, it gives you time to think and reflect on what’s happening. As the leader, you need this perspective to be able to lead others effectively.

  2. Resist gossip – When we’re scared and uncertain, it's natural to want to talk about it. People congregate trying to find answers and increase certainty. Be aware of the messages you are sending and remember during turbulent times, people may interpret what you say differently.

  3. Be there for your team – This sounds really obvious but when your own emotions are running high sometimes it feels easier to stay away. During times of turbulence, your people need to see you, have access to you (so they can ask questions and share what they’re feeling) and know you’re there for them.

  4. Be there for your peers – Check-in on other leaders and how they are going. Be prepared for a wide range of reactions. Listen a lot, provide emotional support where you can and let them know you’re around if they need a quiet chat.

  5. Be authentic – We’re not robots and so avoid “reciting” the official company line without personalising it in some way and making it relevant. The chances are it will sound false and will therefore do more damage than if you’d said nothing. Acknowledge the uncertainty and the way it may be making people feel.

  6. Be positive but not ‘happy-clappy’ – While happy-clappy doesn’t feature in too many business texts, you know exactly what I mean. Being positive means looking for the opportunity within the change and helping others to see it. Being ‘happy-clappy’ means pretending everything about the change is great and expecting people to just leap on board.

  7. Vent privately - It's possible you think that what has happened is unfair, frustrating or just plain wrong. When you’re feeling emotional, it’s natural to want to get it off your chest. In fact, it’s important you do so. Find someone you trust, get out of the building and walk-and-talk it through. You’ll feel better but won’t have damaged your professional reputation or fueled an already volatile environment.

  8. Let it go – If it’s outside your control or sphere of influence, resist the temptation to dwell on it. Instead, focus your own (and your team’s) attention on what’s known and areas of influence. This often means getting on with the job of serving customers, providing services and keeping the business running.

  9. Keep secrets to a minimum – Sometimes as a leader you will know things before your team and will be unable to share. Try to keep ‘secrets’ to a minimum and be as open as you can. Too many secrets mean people won’t believe you when you genuinely don’t know the answers.

  10. Create an 'answers timeline' – During organisational turbulence, the chances are you’ll find yourself saying ‘I don’t know’ quite a lot. It can feel pretty dis-empowering. Try keeping a log of questions within your team (like a suggestion box into which people can submit their questions). While some answers may not be known for sometime, for others, you may be able to say when people will have answers will be available. This gives people a chance to contribute and feel heard.


Sudden change that comes out of the blue is always challenging. There are no perfect solutions and no guarantees. Take a deep breath, let your values be your guide, be there for people and lead them through it.


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Other articles:


7 ways to turn that non-believer into your biggest fan; 8 fundamental questions a leader needs to answer; The 5 real reasons you organisation finds it so hard to adapt


About the author:


Kate Christiansen has spent 20 years adapting large organisations to strategic change. She is author of The Thrive Cycle: Unlock The Adaptive Organisation Within. To discover more, visit www.thethrivecycle.com



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