What Great Leaders Do When Bad Things Happen

One thing that can get anyone's fear and anxiety levels up is big organizational changes. A new company President has been named, my department is being reorganized, my job is being eliminated, my company is merging with another organization, my boss just announced she/he is leaving and joining a competitor. All of these changes can have both positive and negative emotional impact. The plans of company leaders, meant with the best intentions for the organization and strategic purpose, can be seen by some as a new beginning and by others as the end of the world.

However, when people hear there is going to be a change, let's face it, the first thought for most of us is, “What about me?"

businessman pulling open blank white curtain covering infographic doodles on old dark brick wall with gray concrete floor

How is this change going to affect my world? Our senses are heightened and we may be nervous about our job being in jeopardy or worried about the restructuring of our team and who we will answer to. When we feel this tension, we tend to respond emotionally.

I recently had a friend whose organization was going through a merge and he noticed some leaders in the company were responding very differently to the situation. Some of the leaders were being more encouraging, trying to help those under their leadership to face the emotion they were feeling.

Last week we talked about what these leaders are actually doing: reframing the fear of those under their leadership into excitement. Is the situation good? Is it all rosy and pollyanna? No, of course not.

Is there pain in a merger? Of course there is, especially when the news first hits. Is it the end of the world? No, I don’t think so. These leaders help those experiencing this emotion to initially calm themselves from the emotional fever pitch they are feeling so that they can begin to turn their fear into excitement.

My friend observed that other leaders in the organization weren't quite as helpful. My guess is these folks fall into one of two camps. The first camp is those who are so worried about themselves that they are no earthly good to those under their leadership. They are self-referential and self-absorbed. They turn their fear into survival of the fittest mode, caring only for themselves and their needs. The other camp just doesn’t know how to express emotion.

Emotional expression, according to Steve Stein and Howard Book, authors of The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, involves openly expressing feelings both verbally and non-verbally. The way we come across to others can greatly influence their opinion of us. Emotional expression is a skill, and some leaders lack this ability. When things go bad and everybody knows it, leaders need to have the skill to express the emotion that fits the circumstance in order to have authenticity and credibility.

So what do you do when changes like these happen in your organization?

Maybe the most important thing to remember is that the only person who can control you is you, so you can choose what will be the best response. The next important thing to remember is that you can't change anyone else, however, your behavior will influence others as they watch what you do and how you do it.

Here's how I would use the CHECK list that I mentioned a couple weeks ago to guide you through a difficult situation like this:

Consider the Situation

  • What is happening to the company, leadership, colleagues, and yourself? Write out the situation and be as objective as you can. How could the merge be looked at from a positive perspective? Why is this situation difficult and what would make it better? It's okay to notice the emotions you are feeling, yet be as objective as possible in order to make sure that the vision of the organization aligns with your values and what you hope to accomplish in your career.

Hear from Others

  • As a leader, plan a couple of open meetings with your team and employees, allowing them to provide ideas and opinions that they believe would help the merge. Allowing your followers to speak into the situation and listening to them will make them feel more comfortable with the change and set a tone for safety moving forward.

Eliminate Negativity

  • Before you make a plan and implement it, it is important that you have a confident, optimistic attitude moving forward. This isn't only about your thoughts regarding the situation, but thoughts about yourself and ability to accomplish your goal. Make sure you believe in yourself and remain hopeful in the situation, then live out that positivism in your workplace. Avoid negativity that others are sharing in order to stay focused and on your optimistic track. Your colleagues and leaders will notice this and your personal actions will have a better impact on the situation.

Conduct a Plan

  • When making your plan for the outcome you would like to have, think realistically about what you can actually do. Plan to stay connected and available for your leaders and team. If you are a leader, make sure your team knows the plan just as well as you do, so they can feel confident and safe in the direction of the organization, which will motivate them to perform well.

Keep Your Head Up

  • You will be one of few that choose to be positive and it will be tempting to fall into the trap of being defensive, complaining, etc. Remind yourself daily of the outcome you are working towards and write it out as part of your to-do list. Focus on one thing you will do daily or weekly to work towards your goal. You will become invaluable to the team as long as you are a team player who is present and willing to work, yet exemplifying leadership through maintaining a positive attitude.


Read my blog post about the effectiveness of an open meeting and plan one with your team in the next week or so with only the discussion topic in mind. If you typically don't organize meetings, talk to your leader about the idea of having one and why you feel it would be helpful. Why not even offer to facilitate the meeting? This will show commitment and initiative to your leader and teammates.