A looming recession is the latest shock to our organizational systems. Covid-19, racial inequity, and geopolitical instability — each has stressed our organizations and work lives, and we’ve struggled to find our footing. But a recession, like these other challenges, reveals organizational dysfunction brewing beneath the surface. It doesn’t cause it. Most often, when we dig deeper, this dysfunction shows up prominently in company culture.
Culture is a set of deeply held organizational mindsets that inform who we are and how we do things. Culture lives in teams, which is where much of our work now occurs. Culture can hamstring an organization’s agility, or it can be a secret weapon to meet challenges and emerge stronger by engaging and aligning teams with commitment, creativity and trust.
People look to leaders to provide direction in challenging times, and the signals you send intentionally or unintentionally have a massive impact on the culture you create. There are three key ways that leaders can model and unleash the right cultural elements to meet challenges head-on:
1. Acknowledge the challenges directly. Authenticity builds trust and credibility. Your people are smart and know that a challenge like a recession might be coming or is already here. Talk about it. Acknowledging challenges shows you understand the potential impact and are not out of touch. Talk about challenges as real concerns, and ones you need your team’s help to address.
One way to do this is by having quarterly check-ins with the entire team where you are completely honest and reveal the current challenges your organization and people are facing, inform them of your approach, and encourage them to share their thoughts and ask any questions. In BTS’s research, trust and credibility differentiate successful change leaders. People will follow leaders they trust, even if all the details are not clear.
2. Empower your teams to carry the weight. In times of challenge, people are often unsure of what to do. Some tune out, and others half-heartedly chip in. But when you involve your teams in decisions that affect them, you get commitment, not just compliance. Provide clarity and guardrails on what is most important to focus on now. (This often requires a pivot from what was important when times were different.) Then, give your teams the opportunity to figure out how to make it work. Teams closest to customer challenges have great ideas about how to shift effectively and resonantly.
Remember that authorship is ownership. In a famous experiment, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues found that people placed five times more value on lottery numbers they chose than on numbers they were assigned at random. At BTS, in anticipation of a recession, we engaged teams at every level, in every function, and across geographies to find ways of safeguarding revenue and reducing costs.
3. Hold the tension of opposing ideas. The pressure and worry of challenging times can cause people to hunker down and play it safe. It can feel risky to offer new ideas and question the status quo. As a leader, this is exactly what you don’t want from your teams. Surviving and thriving through change means thinking differently about how to do things more efficiently, which new products or services could help bolster sales, and how to innovate with your most important clients. New thinking helps you weather the storm. The key to unlocking these critical shifts is to actively bring different points of view into the conversation.
Diverse teams increase innovation by contributing more ideas. You can encourage this by gathering a group of individuals from different departments and levels to brainstorm together. Teams that have non-experts in the mix generate more novel solutions than teams of experts who all share common assumptions and approaches. In fact, BTS’s research on the qualities of successful innovation leaders found that holding the tension of opposing ideas — looking for “both/and” rather than “either/or” solutions — was a successful differentiator. Increasing candor ensures competing ideas get heard. Some of our clients will rotate the role of “devil’s advocate” in meetings to get unpopular ideas out in the open and create a cultural norm of candor.
As a leader, you are likely just as tired as the rest of your organization when it comes to gearing up for the next upheaval. The powerful thing about culture is that it’s in your hands to dial up the things that make a difference. As a leader, it isn’t your responsibility to solve all the challenges ahead but rather to build a culture where your people can craft solutions together safely. The elements of good culture are the things that make life easier, too. Try giving your teams these three culture pillars to hold onto, and you’ll likely find that they will gladly jump in to lead the way forward together. A company culture that inspires people to keep moving is one worth showing up for no matter what’s to come.