To lead through chaos, clarify what matters most and define reality for yourself, your team, and your manager.
When you feel completely out of control, tossed back and forth on an ocean of rapidly changing priorities, reactive pronouncements from senior leaders, and an insurmountable list of priorities, it’s natural to expect your manager to solve the problem. But they can’t help until you take responsibility. When you take the initiative to lead through chaos you’ll give your team the confidence they need and protect them (and yourself) from burnout.
“I just don’t know what to do.” Alan’s desperation was palpable. “It’s crazy around here. No one seems to understand what’s going on. We’re getting contradictory directions from senior leaders. I’m trying to be a team player and do whatever they ask, and my team’s been hanging in there, but they’re about to break. I’m going to lose them to other jobs or PTO because this is making them sick. And I’m exhausted too.”
He shook his head and sighed. “I feel bad for my manager, they’re in a hard place and there aren’t any easy decisions, but I can’t seem to get them to make better choices. I don’t know how much more of this we can handle.”
There’s No Help Coming
One of the reasons for Alan’s fatigue is that he was relying on other people to solve his problems. It’s natural to want your managers to solve those challenges and figure out what needs to happen next.
But they can’t.
They don’t know what you know. They’re not experiencing your problems and challenges. And they have problems of their own.
That’s not an excuse – it’s just reality. You’d have the same issues if you were in their position.
To successfully lead through chaos, you must embrace the fact that no one can solve your problems for you.
Time to Lead
Your manager can’t solve the problem for you. But that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t help.
They can help, and often will, but the only way they can help is for you to lead first – to stop waiting for help to arrive, to take responsibility for yourself, your team, and the situation. That’s what it means to lead through chaos.
When you take ownership for the situation, you won’t be thrown back and forth by the waves of whatever reactive policies come down every four hours. You’ll have clarity about what needs to happen. You’ll be able to give your manager the information they need – even if it’s uncomfortable. And you’ll provide the trust and confidence your team needs to do their best and avoid burnout.
Regain Your Calm and Lead Through Chaos
There are five steps you can take to re-empower yourself, your team, and lead.
1. Let Go of Villain Stories
Your manager didn’t wake up this morning planning devious ways to make life difficult for you and your team. He’s a human being, trying to get through some challenging circumstances, the same as you are. And she might not be as assertive or solution-focused as you wish, but that’s the humanity part. You’re not perfect either.
Holding on to stories about villainous or incompetent your manager is only keeps you stuck. You remain a victim and you can’t lead.
So let go of the stories and re-empower yourself with your ability to take responsibility and act.
2. Clarify What Matters Most
As you take responsibility, your first job is to focus on the outcomes that truly matter. Not what is comfortable for you or your team, not whatever objectives your manager is passing through from hour to hour…what actually matters most to the success of your business and your customer?
One way to answer this is to think about six months or one year from now. Once this wave of chaos passes by (hopefully) what will you and your senior team be happy you accomplished? That’s what matters.
3. Prioritize What’s Possible
When you have limited time, limited resources, and strained emotions, and tired people, you must focus relentlessly on what you can actually do. If there are sixteen possible outcomes, what are the three or four that you can truly achieve?
This step is uncomfortable for many managers. They don’t want to say they can’t do something – it feels like an admission of weakness. It’s not. In fact, it takes strength and humility to acknowledge what you’re capable of doing. Pretending you can do what you cannot isn’t strength, it’s foolishness. It’s lying to yourself and others.
Have the courage to genuinely assess what you and your team can do.
“Pretending you can do what you cannot isn’t strength…”
4. Connect with Your Team
Next, it’s time to focus on your team. This is one of those moments where landing in the “and” of a combined focus on results and relationships makes a big difference.
Be real about the facts, the challenges, and the outcomes you need to achieve. Acknowledge the rapidly changing environment and the overwhelming number of priorities you face together. Then bring their focus to what matters most.
What are the most critical habits, activities, and outcomes they need to achieve in the time available? And what are the “nice to do” when time permits?
With that clarity in place, share your confidence in their ability to make it happen along with how you will manage up, deal with the pressures, and provide cover for them to do their work. They need to have confidence that you have their back, are advocating for their best, and that when you bring a new priority to them, it is truly important.
5. Communicate with Your Manager
Now it’s time to talk with your manager. Show up to these conversations “landing in the and” of confidence and humility. This usually isn’t a one-time communication. It’s an ongoing series of updates, one-on-ones, and conversations. In these conversations you’ll need to be clear about:
• What Matters Most: “These are the priority outcomes that I believe are most vital to the organization. Would you agree?”
• Limitations: “In order to achieve X and Y, I may not consistently be able to do Z.”
• How You Are Leading and Managing the Situation: “My team and I are close to burnout and I’m going to manage our hours to help maintain their health and productivity while we achieve those top priorities. Here’s what that looks like…”
• Ask for Input: “That’s my approach. I’m curious if you see anything critical that I’ve missed or have suggestions on achieving the results within these limitations?”
When you share this information and ask for input, it is possible that your manager will say something like “That’s nice, but that’s not acceptable. You’ve got to achieve X, Y, and Z.”
When this happens, don’t argue. Instead, agree.
With empathy, you can say something like, “I totally agree. It’s not acceptable, it’s just what it is until we can resource differently. And, I’m totally open to your advice about how we can do it differently. Or, if there are other priorities we can trade-off that would allow for X, Y, and Z. Do you have any thoughts?”
Now, you’ve taken responsibility for your circumstances. You’ve done the best you can to manage the situation and, you’ve informed and equipped your manager to help you, rather than waiting for them to magically figure out what you need. You’ve also given your manager the information she needs in order to problem-solve and advocate for you and your team.
You communicate all of this calmly, confidently, respectfully, with empathy, and with the humility to learn and consider other approaches.
When work feels totally out of control, how do you take responsibility and lead through chaos? What are the key decisions you make and communicate with your team and manager?
You might also like:
- How to Empower Your Team During Times of Uncertainty (Video)
- Help Your Team Shift from Busy to Productive (Podcast)
- How to Say No at Work: Powerful Phrases to Stand Your Ground
- Help for the Overwhelmed Working Manager (podcast)