Three Ways To Turn Around A Team In Turmoil

At times of crisis, leaders have a tendency to batten down the hatches, bark orders, and assign blame. Those are all bad moves.

Three Ways To Turn Around A Team In Turmoil
[Photo: Dieselducy, Andrew R via Wikimedia Commons]

When your team is in trouble, it may seem like any way out is a good way out. It often isn’t. Taking a team in the right direction is crucial at any time, but when the pressure is high and things aren’t going well, getting everyone back on track is especially difficult. Here are a few ways to do that, without falling prey to the common mistakes managers often make when trying to set things aright.


1. Look At Process, Not Just People

When something goes wrong, too many leaders seek to blame others–it’s an understandable instinct. First reactions in crisis situations are often about sorting out what went wrong and assigning fault. And to be sure, sometimes it really is a person or group of people who screwed up. But often it’s the systems or processes they work within that’s enabled their missteps.

It helps to zoom out a bit before pointing fingers. Take these steps right away:

  1. Closely examine your current strategy. How well was your team executing it before things went awry? What changed? Consider those execution methods from the perspective of your current situation to determine whether changing circumstances have made them less effective.
  2. Next, analyze the impact of the work of your team, partners, and customers. Where did the results start slipping or sales begin to fall off?
  3. Finally, evaluate your present capabilities. Despite the bad turn, what’s your current capacity to execute? What assets and resources do you still have at your command to try something new?

This assessment of your processes should make it easier to take a fresh look at your team’s or company’s strategy, so you can make decisions about how to move forward that aren’t based on personalities or office politics. Usually if there’s turmoil, it means that there’s a part of your process that hasn’t worked as intended for longer than you’d realized. But you need to pin that down before making rash choices. When decisions are made in haste without understanding their full impact, even the most effective leaders fail to get their teams back on track.

In 2009, Ed Whitacre was appointed as the chairman of General Motors when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. He immediately combined GM’s sales and marketing organization under one leader–a hasty decision that turned out to be wrong. A few months later, GM had to split up sales and marketing again.

As Bloomberg reported, “Whitacre realized that all of the change had rattled the workforce, so he sent a companywide email: ‘A smart company changes and adapts to the needs of the business. So, while there will always be individual moves within GM, I want to reassure you that the major leadership changes are behind us.'” It took a lot more than his email to reassure Whitacre’s team, but ultimately, under his direction, the company went on to an enormous, $20-billion IPO under his direction.

2. Revisit Your Shared Purpose–And Don’t Be Afraid To Change It

When we find some common reasons to be optimistic, we’re often able to channel that positive energy into finding a solution. Morale sinks when things go wrong, so it’s essential to reinvest in a shared purpose before moving ahead. Many leaders already know they need to emphasize their team’s shared vision in times of turmoil, but few do it the right way. You need to explain in concrete, practical terms how the changes underway tie into your company’s redefined objectives–what new steps need to be taken, and how those steps should be executed.


After all, sometimes your sense of purpose does need redefining. It may be that a pivot is exactly what the doctor ordered. It might actually be a bad idea to return to underscoring your core vision if that vision has steered you wrong. In the rush to blame “bad apples,” this is something struggling companies tend to miss.

Instead, effective leaders re-instill self-worth in their teams by making them feel good about the urgency that the task at hand requires of them. Get comfortable with the reality that in the face of crisis, the future is often hazy–then ask your team to embrace that uncertainty, too, showing how confident you are that they can pull it off. Leaders don’t necessarily need to singlehandedly push their organizations in a new direction, just keep a steady ship as the crew does the steering together.

3. Start Experimenting And Delegating Responsibilities

Change may or may not be woven into the fabric of your company culture, but sometimes circumstances require it. Whatever the case, it can be a good thing. People often learn more about each other when they have to change together. And a crisis is arguably the best time to instill this team-building attitude. This way, when turmoil hits next time, your organization will be better equipped to carry itself through.

To do that, leaders may need to do the opposite of what they’re used to doing during tough times; instead of buckling down, handing out directives, and showing “strong” leadership, it may be better to start experimenting and giving others more responsibility, not less.

After all, the worst thing you can do is fall back on the old ways of working–the ones that got you into this pickle in the first place. It’s often at the edge of a crisis where the most innovative solutions are found. When things are going well, innovation tends to offer incremental benefits, but when we need to make wholesale changes fast, the ability to experiment can sometimes transform even the most dire situations.

But in those situations, leadership usually doesn’t come from just one person. Leaders and managers may not be in best positions to see the disruptive parts of the puzzle themselves. If every team member is encouraged to speak up and has the authority to take on their own portion of problem-solving themselves, the solution can be all the more robust.


When a team owns the route out of the quagmire, they’ll be better experienced at climbing out of the next one they stumble into.

Serial entrepreneur Faisal Hoque is the founder of Shadoka, which enables entrepreneurship, growth, and social impact. He is the author of Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability (McGraw-Hill) and other books. Use the Everything Connects leadership app for free.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Faisal Hoque. All rights reserved.