6 ways to lift morale during a work crisis

Humans may be a civilized species, but a primal fear and instinct takes over when a company is in a crisis: like animals fleeing open spaces before an earthquake, humans panic and huddle in cubicles and office kitchens when their company is facing tough times.

Most experienced professionals know the drills: Instead of productive work, the office is overtaken with furtive gossip and speculation about layoffs, numbers in the red, gallows humor and more panic at news that your fourth team member in a month has just quit.

These are all events that can toss a company into chaos—but you don’t have to follow suit. Whether you’re a manager or you have “soft” influence in the office, you can make sure that the panic and chaos leads to clear thinking and better plans, not willy-nilly destruction. While certain things will be out of your control, as a professional, there are parts of this situation you can individually control and address. Here’s how to motivate your co-workers and yourself in tough times.

Lead yourself

When fear hits the air, you need to put on your oxygen mask first and help yourself before you can rescue others. That means leading yourself.

Process your own emotions about what’s happening, so you don’t unduly unburden your stress and panic onto your colleagues and create an unhelpful anxiety loop.

Easier said than done, right? Here are a few tips that may help.

First, identify your greatest worries by writing them down. What’s the worst possible outcome? Is it job loss, financial panic, something else? Don’t run away from that. Life coach Raphael Cushnir has a short ritual he advises in his book “The One Thing Holding You Back“: Identify the emotion you’re feeling, then scan your body to find out where it’s sitting. (It may be, for instance, a lump in the stomach.) Don’t run away from it or distract yourself. Instead, allow yourself a few minutes to picture and live in the worst-case scenario, thoroughly allowing the emotion to do its work and noting the physical changes in your body. Then ask yourself: could you accept that outcome? Usually, you can. That helps move the worry off your plate. Cushnir provides guided meditations for free on his website that help guide you through the process.

Leading yourself also means getting informed and doing your own reporting about the crisis. Understand as much as you can that’s factual about what’s going wrong, so you can make decisions with as much information as possible at your disposal. That way, when you communicate information to your team, it’s well-researched and pragmatic, not hyperbolic.

Also, remember to take care of yourself. During unhappy days at work, make sure each day includes something you enjoy. Keep a gratitude journal, take breaks and go outside. These are necessary reminders that there’s a wide world beyond your office walls.

Praise your team’s work

You may not be able to control the direction of your company, but you can make sure to know that your employees’ work is still valued. Recognize small and big wins early and often. Giving consistent, specific credit to your colleagues creates positive feedback loops and makes everyone feel appreciated. And you’ll need all the good vibes you can get in tough times.

Talk to co-workers about how their work still matters. More than a paycheck, employees want their work to matter and be recognized. “You cannot fix their views of the company as a whole. But do not wait for the CEO to solve that problem. Shift the focus to something that you can control–the good that their unit does. You can help them see how that still contributes to people’s lives,” Harvard Business Review recommends.

Signal your values

What are we here for? Living up to your values —preferably honesty, transparency and mutual respect —sends a clear message to employees that expectations will meet reality.

Whatever external forces are at play, you can set the tone about how it will be handled. Look to the CEOs of the nation’s top automakers, GM, Ford, and Chrysler, in 2008. After the CEOs were criticized for using private jets to go to Washington and seek bailout money, they changed their tune. They drove their own cars for the next Congressional hearing. It was a positive public relations move, yes. But it also showed that the CEOs were owning up to their mistakes, and it allowed them to show off their companies’ fuel-efficient vehicles.

Address the gossip

If there is no reliable information, there is a vacuum for communication—and that vacuum will be filled with negative gossip. One of the best ways to manage morale is to nip rumors in the bud. Talk to your co-workers about what you know and don’t.

But remember: be discreet about how you talk about the state of the company to your team members and to people outside of it. What you share will shape your company’s story to future employers and may make it harder or easier for you to find new opportunities.

No false promises

It can be tempting to brush away concerns and say “it’s all gonna be okay.” But that would be a lie: you can’t know that, and it’s a bad move to set up expectations that get dashed.

Instead of setting up unrealistic expectations about the company’s future, you can help people make commitments to themselves, to do their best work while they can. Those promises will last longer than any one job.

Remind your close teammates that you will support their careers, and follow through on that promise. Take those colleagues to coffee, offer to be a reference, go to networking events together, and review resumes.

You can’t promise your co-workers that their jobs are secure. You can promise them that that whatever happens, they will be able to handle it.

Put the crisis in perspective

Remember that you work for a business, and that demoralizing events like pivots and disruptions are business decisions, not personal ones. If you find yourself overwhelmed by what’s happening around you, take a step back and put these events in perspective. Recognize that your work doesn’t define you. You are bigger than this one bad month, disappointing result, or job. Today may be tough, but there will be brighter tomorrows.