A Challenge to Leaders: Leading through Challenges

All organizations go through challenges, whether they are as significant as the recent government shutdown or more commonplace, such as growing pains from shifting business models. You shouldn’t expect or even want to avoid challenges (though some are less desirable than others). It is through these situations that individuals and organizations have the opportunity to grow. And as leaders, we are defined by our ability to navigate through challenges.

First, leaders must understand the impact on employees – most significant is the impact to trust and motivation.

Though change often comes with many new opportunities, it is hard for people not to equate change with risk and uncertainty. With those feelings come defensiveness and distrust, and sometimes the changes happening more than warrant those feelings. However, it is important to remember that distrust is a form of insecurity. When employees see their coworkers leaving or are asked to develop skills in new areas, they feel uncertain about how these changes will affect them. Rebuilding trust is about bringing back a sense of security. Let me be clear here, this is not about painting an unrealistic picture in order to temporarily assuage fears. Instead, leaders must be open, understanding, and focused on the end goal. Leaders should:

  • Be upfront about changes taking place, what impact they will have, and how long they are likely to last
  • Recognize that these changes may be hard for some employees and empathize with their feelings
  • Live the “open door” policy and encourage employees to come with concerns and suggestions
  • Demonstrate a commitment to creating a better organization despite challenges

Uncertainty can also lead to decreased morale. Especially if benefits are not seen immediately or if in fact negative changes have taken place. As morale slumps so does engagement, motivation, and productivity. To restore morale, bring back the “positive” as quickly as possible. For example:

  • Recognize employee achievements
  • Celebrate special events
  • Host face-to-face collaborative innovation sessions
  • Focus on the future and achieving goals
  • Reduce the sense of hierarchy and empower employees at all levels
  • Have a little fun!

Ultimately, the best way to handle a challenge is to come out of it stronger than when you went in. Whatever the cause or reason, a  great leader has the ability to take a challenge and turn it into something positive.  For example, during the recent shutdown, our team leaders focused on building their employees’ skills, developing new and innovative solutions, and creating tiger teams to improve existing services. When the shutdown ended, our teams were able to help their clients better than ever before. So, instead of getting lost in challenges, learn to accept the situation and transform it into an opportunity.

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Taking on challenges

No one can be 100% prepared for anything. Take parenthood as an example. You could carefully plan when you want to have kids, read all the experts’ books on being a great parent, and spend ample time around kids before ever having your own, but really there is no way to be fully ready to be a parent. Like everything else in life, personal experience has no substitute. That is why, as a professional, you have to experience new things; you have to take on challenges in order to grow your career.

So what stops us from doing that? It is human nature – We are comfortable doing what we know. Both economists and psychologists have discovered that humans are risk averse. More specifically, psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, determined that people are risk averse in choices involving gains, whereas if we know that there is a potential for loss, we are more risk-seeking. In most cases, taking on a challenge professionally doesn’t come with an obvious loss. Typically, no one is telling us to try something new or else be negatively impacted. Of course, there could potentially be gains from trying something new, but we’d rather stick with what we know we are good at.

But taking on new challenges is critical to our career growth. It provides us the opportunity to learn and develop in ways we couldn’t have without that experience. For example, imagine you have just signed up to run a marathon for the first time. This is indeed quite a challenge. It requires training, not something you can do automatically (“Oh, I think I’ll just go run a marathon today!”). It is unlikely you will win or run your personal best time the first go around, but the experience makes you a better runner. You’ve learned things through the experience, such as how fast to run, what to listen to on your ipod, what to eat before and after, what your body feels like during and after a long run, etc. The experience, though challenging, though not automatically successful, has helped you to grow.

There are many ways you can take on challenges at work:

  • Ask your boss what else they need help with.
  • Get involved in activities outside your immediate project.
  • Accept challenges offered to you. Be a “yes” person – especially early on in your career.
  • Follow your interests and passions, even if you aren’t good at them yet.
  • Get to know new people and what they are working on. Have a work dinner coming up? Don’t just sit with the people you work with every day.
  • If you recognize an issue impacting your organization, offer to take it on and create a solution.

The key is to recognize your own stagnation: Are you still learning something new every day? Is the work you do hard anymore? Are you bringing innovative ideas forward? If not, it may be time to take a risk and try something new.

Be challenged, be uncomfortable, make mistakes, fail a little. That’s how you grow and become truly successful in your career. Yes, it does require some risk, venturing from the known, what you are good at, to the unknown, but that is how great leaders develop.