5 Ways to Lead Your Team Through Chaos Change Leadership Development Leadership Title Image
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    5 Ways to Lead Your Team Through Chaos

    by Sara J. Baker, Ed.D.

    You lead your team in creating a carefully crafted plan to achieve your department’s goals.

    And then word comes down from the levels above directing you and your team to take another path.

    The last-minute change, sometimes with no explanation, can send your team into chaos. So, how do you lead your team through chaos in times when changes are thrust upon them, and they feel betrayed, angry or distrustful?

    If you focus on the following five areas you will be off to a good start in leading your team through unwanted and unwelcome change.

    1. Leadership requires a calm, steady hand.

    Remain calm and do not show any emotional upheaval to your team. Your team will look to you to see how you handle it. If you show distress then that only will increase their level of distress. In a crisis, you must stay steady and resolute. Lead through the chaos by leaning into the storm and taking one step forward at a time.

    Keep your emotions authentic, don’t express delight with the new changes if you don’t feel it because your team will spot the lie, and lose trust in you for it. Staying calm and not giving in to anger or panic doesn’t require that you suddenly become supportive of the change with no explanation.

    The calm simply comes from confidence in yourself and your team. You must believe that you can lead them through to the other side of the storm. If you don’t believe in your ability to lead them through the change then your team certainly won’t believe it.

    Many times we are called upon to lead our teams through challenging times and through great changes for which they may not be prepared. Managing through chaos requires a different set of skills than leading in calm waters.

    Your team will look to you as their source of stability and peace. If you can remain calm and focused, they will be more likely to do the same.

    In the midst of the chaos, will you freak out or will you focus your internal strength to push forward and lead them through the uncertainty?

    Can you become the calm in the storm for your team?

    2. Remind yourself of the larger purpose of your team.

    After you have calmly established your confidence in the ability of you and your team to get through the chaos, you will need to guide the team to refocus on the bigger picture. Think about the larger purpose of your organization. What is the reason you and your team work so hard?

    Remembering what the bigger picture is, the “why” behind your daily motivation, can help to realign you and your team to the organization.

    Hopefully, you work for the organization because you believe in what they are ultimately trying to achieve. When your team’s plans are suddenly thrust aside and you must pick up the oars and start rowing in a different direction, it can be very difficult to stay motivated.

    The easiest way to pull a team together, even if you are brand new to the team, is to focus them on the good that your organization does. Intentionally and purposefully state, “We make people’s lives better by [insert what your company does here]!”

    If you work for a:

    • Phone company, “we make people’s lives better by providing quality access so that they can communicate with friends and loved ones.”
    • School, “we make students’ lives better by providing a quality education so that they have opportunities to improve the long-term quality of their lives.”
    • Consulting firm, “we make people’s lives better by helping them find solutions to improve their businesses, so they can help make lives better for their customers.”

    Regardless, of what you do or where you work, we are all working to provide products to improve lives, to make things easier, to increase opportunities.

    Remind your team of that.

    3. Stay positive.

    You must help your team maintain a positive outlook. You must help them to understand that even in the chaos they can still make a powerful impact.

    Your immediate plans and the immediate direction may have changed, but your long-term direction and purpose still exist. Dwelling on the difficulties you experienced during the chaos only serves to undermine the happiness and success you and your team can experience.

    Successfully navigating change means letting go of the resentment of losing the old way and focusing on the good that you can achieve in the new path.

    One of the greatest challenges of leadership that you will experience is leading your team through chaos or change, especially if it is an ill-managed, chaotic change that is thrust upon you and your team.

    If you plan on meeting goals and making you and your team’s work experience positive, then you will have to start by embracing the change yourself.

    Then work on igniting excitement and passion within your team for the change.

    Loving or hating change is all about mindset and you have the power to train yourself to love it or hate it.

    Positivity is not just about smiling. It is also about using positive language, identifying a clear path through the chaos to the new goal and sharing your passion for reaching that goal with your team.

    4. Embrace the new direction, adjust your plan and communicate.

    Your job as the leader is now to take the new direction, or the new strategy, and articulate to your team how that new direction still aligns with your larger purpose.

    Although the time for effective and positive change management has already passed in this type of situation, you still must make the best of the situation.

    Your team needs to understand where the new goal is and how they are going to reach it.

    You will need to lead them in honestly talking through where your team is now, where the goal is and re-plotting a detailed path to get to the goal.

    You will not have time to waste lamenting the loss of your old strategy. Instead .throw yourself and your energy into making the new direction a fantastic “win.”

    In times such as this, you may need to rely upon some of the leadership collateral you have built up with your team. The trust you have built with your team members will allow you, on occasion, to ask them to stay with you and keep going, even when they do not want to.

    Ask them to focus on the positive and to trust you when you tell them that things will be okay.

    Let them know that you will keep everything moving in the right direction, making sure you and the team are fulfilling the greater purpose of your organization.

    This step is essential, but it will be difficult to do if your team is resentful of the change.

    And finally, communicate, communicate, communicate!

    Keep everyone updated on what is happening and what still needs to happen. This helps to keep everyone focused and reduces the chances that someone will make a move in the wrong direction or get discouraged and give up.

    5. Explain the “why” behind the change.

    Change management 101 tells us that we must help our teams understand the “why”, or the reasoning behind a change so that they can make sense of it. You can most easily do this by explaining why the change was implemented AND tying that reasoning into the larger mission of the organization.

    In times of chaos, people need stability and meaning more than ever. Helping them see how the change still meets the needs of the organization gives them a sense of stability. It also allows them to see that there is still a larger purpose that they are working towards, even in the midst of all the chaos.

    To increase employee engagement, you want to be sure that your team members always understand how their daily work supports the larger purpose and truly makes a difference in the world. If you can help your team see how the new direction still helps the company move closer to its mission, then they will be more likely to buy in and engage with the change.

    Understandably, this becomes even more critical when you are leading your team through change. Help your team to see the impetus for the change and, if possible, explain why the organization decided a hurried approach was needed.

    Our brains constantly try to make sense of the world around us. Give your team the explanations that they need to at least in some small way understand why the change was thrust upon them, even if they don’t agree with the decision or the way it was implemented.

    If you do not know the “why” and cannot acquire that information from anyone else, then, at least help your team understand an important truth:

    In all workplaces there are always entities that will make rules or set courses that don’t seem to make sense.

    It may be your boss, your boss’ boss, the CEO, the board who oversees your organization, the state, or the government. But there is always someone else who makes rules and has influence.

    Although this may seem intuitive, it isn’t an idea that adults embrace. We like to think that once we become adults, we are finally in charge, but we know, of course, that is not the case.

    Life is a constant stream of change.

    We can be mad about change or we can learn how to make the most of it and go forward to do good things anyway.

    Our professional and personal lives are, ultimately, stories of change. Storytelling experts will tell you that stories all have three parts, the way it was before, the change that came and the way it was after.

    Make your team’s story one that reads, “We had a great action plan. Then we had to adapt. So we made an even better plan. And we won.”

    Don’t let your team’s story be one of defeat or distress when the chaotic storms of the workplace roll through. Lead your team through chaos and come out on the other side even stronger.

    Join the movement, become a leadership reformer today!

    Dr. Sara Baker, Founder of the Leadership Reformation

    About the Author

    Dr. Sara Baker is an advocate for positive leadership and healthy workplaces. With over 20 years of experience leading private and public organizations, she understands the challenges that employees and leaders face every day.

    Sara is the author of Toxic Workplace Survival Guide, an essential resource for anyone who wants to thrive in spite of a toxic work environment. In addition to her writing, Sara provides online courses for leadership development and coping with a toxic workplace.

    Dr. Sara Baker, Founder of the Leadership Reformation

    About the Author

    Dr. Sara Baker is an advocate for positive leadership and healthy workplaces. With over 20 years of experience leading private and public organizations, she understands the challenges that employees and leaders face every day.

    Sara is the author of Toxic Workplace Survival Guide, an essential resource for anyone who wants to thrive in spite of a toxic work environment. In addition to her writing, Sara provides online courses for leadership development and coping with a toxic workplace.

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