Even leaders can face failure.
Sometimes their life experiences find them taking over a situation, or coming out of one themselves, in which there have been significant failures or crises in the organization they are attempting to lead. It is not at all uncommon that such situations leave many people in those organizations with a certain degree of trauma, which often is manifested by a significant lack of confidence. Instead of facing new opportunities and challenges with energy and optimism, organizations that are recovering tend to be characterized by doubt, uncertainty, hesitancy and negativism. In such situations, the leader’s job is to rebuild confidence, which sometimes must begin with the leaders themselves.
The first step in dealing with such a circumstance is to recognize it. The symptoms might or might not be obvious, including slowness in response, body language that is reserved or even detached, comments that are often critical and full of expressions of cynicism and even distrust, lack of initiative or volunteer activity, missed deadlines and low energy levels. All of these can be manifested within an organization that has experienced major disappointment or crisis. If you are seeing or even feeling several of these symptoms, and your organization has just been through some very tough times (or still is in them), you might be experiencing a crisis of confidence. Here are some tried and true ways to respond:
• Name the problem for what it is. In town-hall type meetings and in private conversations, the leader can acknowledge the issue openly and in a way that expresses empathy and understanding. The fact that the leader sees the issue and is calling it out can itself be comforting and reassuring to people.
• While recognizing and understanding the issue, it is critical for the leader to not allow it to become the new normal. A crisis of confidence is nothing more than an expectation of failure. In other words, these symptoms must be seen as temporary and to have run their course. The leader must call for them to end by being crystal clear about expectations and coming events. Do not allow your people to wallow in their misfortune, lest it become permanent.
• Develop some very specific goals, objectives and project timelines and then make absolutely certain these are met. Nothing will build confidence like some successes. Little successes stacked end on end can be very powerful in rebuilding confidence and a larger, more pervasive expectation of success. That is the definition of confidence.
• Be very transparent with results and outcomes and make sure to take extra time to highlight wins. Few organizations turn around overnight, and there always will be some disappointments mixed with the emerging good news, but take pains to ensure that the positive far outweighs the negative.
• Enlist your other leaders and supervisors in the effort. They must be delivering the same message that you would, even if you are not in the room. Nothing will erode emerging confidence more assuredly than supervisors whose message is different or inconsistent with yours.
After a period of a few months, when things are clearly on the upswing, it might be appropriate to take some time to look back on how things were “in the dark hours,” contrast that view with current reality, and call out the learnings that might have come from the experience. In this way, two things happen.
First, you bury the past for what it was. Second, you help to encourage a mature, adult culture in which your people recognize that disappointments are inevitable, but that they are almost never fatal. From this kind of maturity, in which the highs are not too high, and the lows not too low, your people will develop the collective confidence necessary to move forward respecting the past, being candid about the current situation, but being unfailingly optimistic about the future. That is how confidence is rebuilt and sustained.
Kevin Eichner is president of Ottawa University. He invites your feedback to this column. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org