What do your team members need most from you as a leader in times of crisis? You might think they need you to be calm and reassuring, to offer an upbeat perspective, inspiration, or motivation. And they do need all those things. But the thing they need most isn't on that list. It's consistency.
In an insightful post on the Psychology Today website, Victor Lipman, a longtime executive at MassMutual, management trainer, and author, argues for the importance of consistency and the bad things that can happen when it isn't there. "Few management attributes can be as stress-inducing for employees on a daily basis as not knowing what's expected of you, or what kind of management mood will await you from one day (or moment) to the next," he writes.
Early in my career I had a boss who was very smart and excellent at sales. She had risen through the ranks to be second-in-command in our department. It was a place of large workloads and challenging deadlines and very frequent business travel. One night I found myself in the office late, trying to finish a project that was due that day but not terribly essential. I had an early flight the next morning and then a full day of meetings. And so I left the work uncompleted and went home to bed.
The next day, I got a furious phone call from my boss. I was sorry I hadn't finished the project, I explained, but I had to leave for the trip. I would complete it as soon as I returned to the office in a couple of days. That wasn't good enough, she told me. When I realized I couldn't finish on time, she said, I should have contacted her, late in the evening though it was, and asked whether I should still go on the business trip or skip the trip to finish the work.
I was stunned. Deadlines were always tight in that company and sometimes they were missed. Whereas there were people, some of them customers, expecting to meet with me at my destination and standing them up would be unacceptable so far as I knew. What my boss had said was completely at odds with the company's priorities as I'd always understood them. By the time I got back to the office, she seemed to have changed her mind again.
Can I count on you?
"What I came to realize over the course of my career was that it mattered less to me whether a manager was stern or gentle, authoritative, or easy-going. What really mattered was whether I could count on the person," Lipman writes. And, he says, employees crave consistency in their leaders even more during uncertain times like these.
It reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago with a CEO known for his ability to turn failing companies around. At the time, he'd recently saved a New England manufacturer from oblivion. When I asked how he did it he said, "The most important thing is that the people in the company never have to guess what the boss is thinking. They always know what decision I'll make in any situation, because I've made clear what I consider most important and I've never wavered from that."
I was struck by that answer at the time, and all these years later I still am. This turnaround expert who'd made a career out of saving struggling companies was saying that letting your team know exactly where you stand, and sticking to it, is even more important than making the right decisions. That's something to remember next time you're wondering how you can best help your team.