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Leadership behaviours for dealing with tough times

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Leadership behaviours in tough times

How should leaders behave during tough times?

The key to great leadership is creating engagement, a positive atmosphere for employees.

There are 4 crucial behaviours that are necessary when leading through tough times. The first is empowering your staff so they feel in control and less stressed. It is also important to lead with optimism and create a positive corporate culture. The third component is to be supportive, being helpful and kind, causing people to feel they belong. Finally, provide opportunities for learning and development.

Be an “unboss” and lead as a facilitator! What does this mean?

Read on to learn more.

How leaders need to behave during difficult times

Watch the video to understand the important role that leaders play during tough times, and the different strategies they can employ to ensure that staff remain engaged and productive..

Watch the first video in this series here:

Part 1 – Meaning of leadership: A definition

And watch the previous video here:

Part 7 – Difficult times: stress management techniques

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

Focusing on leadership behaviours

Hi, Andrew from SACS, and welcome to video number eight in our eight video series on “Leadership in Tough Times.”

This video is about leader behaviours for tough times, and you can see that we’ve dealt with an extremely wide range of topics about leadership in tough times.

We looked at what is leadership?

We’ve looked at stress and stressors, including the neuroscience of stress, and some diagnostics for stress.

We’ve looked at stress sensitivity and resilience, and we’ve looked at stress and working from home.

And the last video was all about stress management techniques for leaders.

All of these videos are designed to stand on their own two feet, but they also do of course, tell a coherent story from video number one, and video number eight.

What we’ll be doing in this video is to focus on leader behaviours.

How should leaders behave during tough times?

Behaviours that predict engagement

Here’s a piece of research that we undertook going back a few years ago now, on leader behaviours and engagement (refer to video).

So we measured leader behaviours as perceived by something like 2,700 people across Australia and New Zealand.

And this was part of a study that we undertook with Deakin University, where we measured levels of engagement of those 2,700 people.

And we measured a bunch of leader behaviours, and 10 leader behaviours proved to perform well mathematically.

This was part of a big study on engagement. In fact, one of the biggest studies undertaken in Australia on the topic of engagement.

And what we were seeking to do, is to see if we could predict people’s levels of engagement, engagement being a positive mental state at work.

And it has three components: a sort of a vigorous energetic aspect, a kind of immersion aspect, where you get happily engrossed in the work that you’re doing, and time flies, and the third component is a sense of commitment to what you’re doing.

And those three components represent a contemporary perspective on engagement.

Certainly when people have those three components of engagement, organisations perform better, but also individuals love to work in those organisations.

Now, what we discovered is that there were these 10 leader behaviours which proved to be important to create levels of engagement, and four of them proved to be particularly important.

And so what I wanted to do is to just basically take this science based result, and let you know about which behaviours are most important.

Now, some of these behaviours are of course, relevant in any context.

But I think that the top four are more important in tough times.

Empower staff

The first is about empowerment.

So the single most powerful thing that any leader can do to cause their staff to have higher morale and engagement is to actually empower them.

Now, if you’ve seen the last video, you’ll remember the diagram that we showed, which is the relationship between stress and control.

So if people are highly stressed, giving them high levels of control helps them to be able to manage their stress better.

What is control? Well, it’s empowerment. It’s where a leader is acting more as a facilitator than an old fashioned top down boss.

So if you want to have higher levels of engagement in your staff, the single most powerful thing any leader can do is to empower them more.

But in tough times, that becomes more important, because the stress component is helped by that level of control.

Optimism and positivity

The second important component is optimism and positivity.

In previous videos, I’ve said that the quality of a corporate culture is really almost entirely the ratio of good things that happen to you, and bad things that happen to you.

And if six times as many good things happen to you as bad things, then chances are you’ve got a positive corporate culture. The more, the better, by the way.

Now, if a leader leads with optimism and positivity, they are creating a situation where they’re a more natural leader, because leadership evolved in order for the organism, for the person, to have a better future.

That’s what leadership is about. I follow you, because you can give me a better future.

So optimism is crucial, because an optimistic leader helps people to understand that there is a better future, but it also changes the positivity balance.

There’s more positivity with an optimistic leader than with a pessimistic leader.

So people talk about authentic leadership. You can be authentic about a lot of things, but it’s best not to be authentic if you are feeling depressed, or angry, or sad, or something like that. It’s better to be confident and positive in the presence of the people who you are leading.

Be a supportive leader

The third component is about being supportive.

And again, if I hark back to the Wang and Hagerty diagram that I showed in the last video, it’s all about yes, stress, and control, and high levels of control are important.

But Wang and Hagerty also discovered that levels of support are crucial, where a leader is seen as being supportive of staff, helpful, kind, causing people to feel that they belong.

Those kinds of things are absolutely crucial in tough times.

Now, if times are great, and the individuals are resilient, well, maybe the leadership style can be a bit more goal orientated and robust.

And I’m not saying abandon goals if times are tough, but you need it to be a little bit more personally supportive in tough times.

Help others to learn

And the final component is about helping people to learn. Human beings get very enthusiastic when they’re learning things.

Humans love to learn.

If you have the opportunity to acquire new skills, you will like your job far better.

So helping people to learn is a really good predictor.

Now, how do we do that in tough times? I’m going to suggest some techniques which might help you pull all of this together as a meaningful whole.

The path to engagement

This is a thing called the path diagram (refer to video).

And what you have at the bottom here is you have the engagement of those 2,700 people we measured across Australia and New Zealand. And then you have the leader behaviours.

And I think the interesting thing to notice is that the path, the correlation between leaders’ behaviours and the engagement of the staff who they lead, that’s a relatively modest path, a relatively small correlation.

But look at this path, the path between leader behaviours and colleague behaviours. What this is saying, is that the leader behaviours cause the colleague behaviours.

This is a correlation of 0.8. So this is a very strong correlation.

Now, this just shows in a scientific form, that the leader behaviours in effect cascade into the colleagues’, and what you then see is that the colleague behaviours cause the levels of engagement of the staff members.

So what the leader is doing is creating the right psychosocial environment for colleagues to be engaged, and therefore staff to be engaged.

So positive behaviours for leaders causes colleagues to behave positively, and that causes high levels of engagement, which is a positive atmosphere amongst staff.

Interesting, isn’t it? I mean, we’ve talked about this forever. The idea that leaders kind of create the psychosocial environment, or there’s all those metaphors about how they’re orchestra leaders, and those sorts of things.

But the truth of it is leaders set the tone for behaviours, that then sets an environment tone in which people can thrive, and be highly engaged.

Leadership options: top-down, consult or facilitate

I want to talk about three leadership options.

There is the leadership option of being a boss, the leadership option of being a consulter.

And a consulter is somebody who goes and asks people their opinions. Should we do this? Should we do that? Takes all those opinions on board, goes back to his or her office, thinks about what the opinions are, and makes a decision.

That’s consultative leadership.

But facilitative leadership is where the leader in fact, doesn’t come with a solution at all, comes with the plan of putting to these five staff members the problem, or the opportunity.

Getting those five staff members ideally to split into small groups, say a group of two, and a group of three, to think about things.

And by the way, in facilitative leadership, the use of small groups is really powerful, because it causes the introverts to feel comfortable to be able to speak in those small group environments.

Very few introverts, or people who just don’t like public speaking, will feel happy to stand up in front of the entire group, or sit up in front of the entire group, and voice out their confident opinions. But if you break them into small groups, they will often hear their ideas expressed by a colleague to the large group.

Because of course, if you’ve got, say 20 people, in four or five small groups, there will be people in the group that will be confident to report back to the group. And that makes everybody feel included.

Small group activities can be really powerful in this kind of technique.

A facilitative leader is going to create the opportunity, and then facilitate a process where the staff decides.

So good leadership in tough times is not all about, “Hey Mary, do this,”, “Hey, John, do this.” “Hey, entire team, you must do that.”

It can be about being a facilitator where a person says to the group, this is the opportunity. This is the challenge. Come up with solutions, and I will back your solutions.

So a really important skill of the facilitative leader is to choose when to do this. When to be the boss, when to be the consulter, and when to be the facilitator.

Facilitative democracy

Now, it might surprise you to know that perhaps the best time to be the facilitator is when an issue is really contentious. When an issue is difficult. Because that’s when a leader can often bring difficulty on themselves by strongly advocating a position, only to discover that multiple people don’t agree with that position.

If you lead a process where the staff discuss the issue, and then I suggest taking a vote, this is what’s known as facilitative democracy, is a style of leadership, it can be a very powerful way of dealing with complex issues or sensitive issues, but also, it makes people know that you’ve had given them the opportunity to contribute to a decision which could have been top down. And of course, that’s very validating.

As well as that, when you lead in this fashion, you will come up with better ideas than any individual can come up with.

You get this synergy effect. And not only that, doing this, causing that style of leadership, causes people to learn.

You remember the fourth point on the diagram of leader behaviours, people learn when you facilitate them to come up with a solution.

And I think that the final benefit of the approach is that what will happen then is that people will rely on you less, rather than coming to you to solve their problems.

They’ll come to you with solutions increasingly, because they become used to this facilitative approach to leadership.

Most leaders in Australia and New Zealand are between model one and model two, which means that they’re top down or consulters.

If we teach people the skills of being a facilitator, we will markedly improve their capacity to lead during tough times.

Model three, facilitative leadership. It’s empowering.

So it gives control to staff, and causes them to be less stressed because of that challenge. And it requires problem solving, and information processing. Creates clarity, hence reduces ambiguity.

If you lead people through this process, it will be enormously clarifying for them about what their colleagues think.

And if it’s well recorded, if you capture the outcomes, it can give really useful things like a destination that we’re heading towards. If we get this project finished, what does success look like? If we build this new system, what will that look like? If we end up being the best team that we can possibly be, what will that look like?

A shared endpoint like that can be a very powerful way of reducing ambiguity, and therefore increasing resilience.

That will help with conflicting demands.

And a good facilitator will be inclusive, so that reduces another hindrance demand, which is about people feeling excluded. And it maximises engagement, so it increases and improves productivity.

Group generated behaviour protocol

If you want to take this kind of a facilitative leadership exercise, then one of the things that you can also do is create what’s called a group generated behaviour protocol.

Earlier in this sequence of videos, I said that mission vision values tends not to work very well, tends not to improve organisations much.

And there’s a lot of evidence to that. I mean, I think when you talk to employees about mission vision values, you often think, yeah, a feel good statement.

You know, clearly it doesn’t mean very often a great deal to them.

Yes, I know that there are some organisations that hold to it passionately, but what’s far more powerful is where team by team, you create a behaviour protocol.

And a behaviour protocol is a statement of behaviours that we as a team consider to be most important.

Now how you do this, is you can do it as a facilitative leadership exercise, where the leader says alright, 20 staff, we’re going to split you into groups of five.

So there’ll be four groups of five.

We want you to write down all of the behaviours that you think are really important for us to be successful.

And then we’re going to stick them on the wall, the wall being a physical wall, if you’re all together physically, or a virtual wall if you’re using Zoom, or some other, the technology.

And then we get people to vote for the behaviours that they think are most important.

Now, typically if you do this exercise, you’ll end up with between, let’s say eight and 12. That’s what I’ve ended up with most times, eight or 12 behaviours.

Those behaviours are far more helpful than a mission vision value statement for an organisation.

One, because it’s close to me. I showed earlier on in this sequence of videos, a diagram that shows culture is local. It’s about the team that I belong to. It’s about the job that I’m doing. It’s about my colleagues. It’s about my immediate leader. That’s where 80% of people’s wellbeing comes from.

So behaviour protocol that’s created by that team can be a very powerful influence on people’s behaviours.

But as well as that, because it’s about behaviours rather than some vague concept like integrity, it’s quite clear as to what people mean. I’m going to come to my meetings on time. I’m going to answer the phone within three rings. I’m going to, if I have to make a decision that affects colleague, I’ll talk to that colleague first. They’re all behaviours.

So a behaviour can be really powerful. Now, of course, if you go this path, you must accept that the behaviour protocol of an accounting team will be different from the behaviour protocol of a sales team. And that will be different from a service team, let’s say.

This is reality. Because the atmosphere, the style of all of those teams should be different. That’s what diversity is about. So we have to accept that.

Now, that may means that you don’t have some grand overriding value statement, or if you find certain behaviours being consistent across all of the different teams, well, you might adopt these as sort of co-behaviours, but that will change things.

Now, that’s a great way of developing esprit de corps during tough times. What behaviours should we see? It will cause more good behaviours, and less bad behaviours, particularly if you keep them alive by reviewing them from time to time, discussing them after meetings to say, did we live out these behaviours, for instance?

Rewarding good behaviour

The leaders can then use these behaviours to reinforce and recognise good behaviours, and redirect negative behaviours.

And that could be a really successful way of reducing stress, because we’ve all agreed how we should behave during these times.

So leadership and tough times, well, the behaviours are all about optimism, positivity, creating a positive balance which outstrips the negative experiences.

Tough times outside an organisation don’t have anywhere near as much impact on people as tough times within organisations.

You know, the policeman out on the beat, anywhere in the world, who has a really difficult interaction with a member of the public, if that person goes back to the police force, and people respond with empathy, and concern, and help, then the bad experience will be massively diminished. But if they get insensitivity, a dare for a year, intolerance from their colleagues, that will take that situation, and make it way worse.

Proximal, distal proximal matters.

Distal doesn’t matter anywhere near so much.

Now of course, people get traumatised by very significant experiences in their work life that have nothing to do with their colleagues, but positive and supportive colleagues will make a massive difference to the wellbeing outcomes of that person. And leaders who lead for that, are much more successful in both productivity and wellbeing terms.


Lead as a facilitator, “unboss.”

Optimise engagement, make stress more manageable, be conscious of being present with your staff, especially if they’re working remotely.

In other words, go out of your way to find more proximal means of communication.

That is for instance, instead of emailing them, phone them. Instead of phoning them, have a Zoom meeting with them.

So that they can see your non-verbals. Those kinds of things can really help.

Lead for resilience. And be conscious of offering support, EAP, wellbeing exercises, such as mindfulness.

So I hope this has been helpful to you, these eight video on leadership in tough times.

If so, look out for the rest of our videos, and also feel free to subscribe, and to like the videos.

Watch the first video in this series to find out more about leadership in tough times:

Part 1 – Meaning of Leadership: A Definition

And watch the previous video here:

Part 7 – Difficult times: Stress management techniques

And if you’d like some help with developing your leaders to better handle challenging times, contact us about our Wellbeing and Engagement Survey.

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