5 mins

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A downturn can ramp up the pressure on managers to balance the needs of their team and the business. Here are four steps to take back control when external factors get in your way.

If you’ve worked any amount of time with practically any company over the last three years, you’ll have navigated a downturn of some sort. Mass layoffs, dropping sales, and rising costs create a looming feeling of anxiety for you and your team, and add pressure to shipping the right software, quickly and efficiently

Not only that, but these types of downturns are typically outside the sphere of your direct control. Situations like these truly challenge you to lead by example, at various levels, and in different styles. Let’s explore how.


1. Reassure the people on your team

When it comes to your team, focus on creating a calm environment and provide as much clarity as possible.

Unless you’re truly in a position to say it and stick to the promise, fight the urge of defaulting to “it’s going to be OK”. Instead, give perspective and model vulnerability, by openly showing that you don't have it all figured out. Validate the concerns your team brings up, open up about how you’re navigating this changing landscape, and offer any perspective that will help your team take next steps. Some phrases to try: “Yes I see that too. Here’s how I think about it…”. Be a thermostat, not a thermometer.

At the 1:1 level of these conversations, guide your team to navigate their fears and anxieties in a productive way. What scenarios are they concretely worried about? What actions can they take now to cover themselves against them? The silver lining of downturns is that they can be periods of personal growth, which is a great topic to explore in a 1:1 meeting.

2. Review business goals

Clarity in both the what and the how is a key part of getting through challenging situations, and downturns are no different. Make it your priority to get really clear on what’s important now, next, and later. Define what good looks like now, and to communicate it to your team. The more your people know what they’re aiming for, the more they can make progress against it.

With the landscape changing, your business or team goals might also have changed. Downturns are typically times where you’ll be asked to do more with less. Having a simple blueprint that you and your team can refer to, and that you can share with your own leadership team can make it easy when multiple options fight for resources you might not have. 

Here’s a high level guide to help:

  • Get clear on what can’t fail, what would be great but you’ll survive without, and what are the operational costs of each.
  • Put together a strategy that ensures success for what can’t fail, minimizes the operational costs, and sets you up for anything aspirational.

The other silver lining of navigating a downturn, is that constraints fuel creativity, and you might uncover approaches that were not visible before.  

3. Feedback loops are more important than ever

With that blueprint in place, now you need to ensure you have the right feedback loops in place. You might notice two traps rearing their head: a constant backdrop of anxiety, and perfectionism. Your tool against both are strong feedback loops.

A background of anxiety might get your team and your leadership worried about progress. Is it fast enough? Is it on the right track?

Once you set a direction, make it your job to communicate early and often in all directions: to your team, peer teams, and leadership alike. Nothing should be considered implied or obvious. With added turbulence in the background, silence could be interpreted many different ways.

Instead, surface feedback. What’s going well? Here’s what’s not working out as expected. Here’s what we’re changing going forward and why. Here’s how we’ll know. The more you involve your team and company in the process, the more the conversation is about facts, not assumptions. And, the more folks feel like they have agency. Win-win!

During a downturn you might also see your team be less willing to take risks, for fear of getting it wrong. This is particularly relevant when there is a fear of layoffs. There’s something to be said about extra thoughtfulness in times of downturn. But too much thinking and debating can have decisions going in circles and not getting to action. More often than not, we just don’t have all the data to make a perfectly risk-free decision, and the only way forward is action. This is an important skill to build for yourself and your team. Notice when hesitation seeps in, make a best judgment hypothesis, look at the results, and iterate.

4. Learn about, and look after yourself

If you do nothing else during turbulent times, putting your own oxygen mask on first will have a positive impact on everything else. Your wellbeing and emotional regulation matter for you, and how you show up for your team. You need to have the energy and mindset to take action, make decisions and lead important conversations.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Explore your default approach to tough times. How do feelings of scarcity show up for you? How do you relate to uncertainty? Do you tend to buckle down and tackle it head on? Or do you prefer to wait it out, and take small, calculated steps? This is not a search for “the right answer”, rather an exercise to help you see what style comes naturally to you and what might need more nurturing. 
  • Connect with what matters in your life more broadly, and how work fits into that. In uncertain or difficult situations, our field of vision narrows on what feels hard or threatening. Not only that, but it can feel like we’re never doing enough. Staying connected with what’s important to you as a person, and keeping healthy boundaries with work 
  • Draw and lean on your own circle of support. A lot of the points until now cover how you can show up in support of others. Reflect on what that looks like for you. Think of trusted colleagues, friends, coaches that can be there to discuss, brainstorm, or just vent. 

Remember, like many easy and challenging things before, this too will pass. What will matter more is the story of how you showed up in the face of the challenge. Good luck!


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Episode 01 Elevating your leadership skills during tough times
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Episode 03 Rethinking your engineering budget during a downturn