Three Leadership Steps to Defuse Tense Situations
– by Rosabeth Moss Kanter
How do leaders maintain morale and momentum when members of their team are close to collapsing in frustration over the obstacles they face? Perhaps the issue is angry customers whose questions are hard to answer, or uncooperative peers from other groups who cause logjams and delay decisions. Team members might grumble and complain, or they might simply appear worn down, ready to drop the ball.
Sometimes leaders are frustrated or annoyed themselves. This is already taking too much time. The complaints sound like attacks, and it’s tempting to become defensive or seethe silently. Tensions are mounting.
Before tensions get worse, leaders should turn down the heat and get everyone back on track. They can use three simple communication steps.
Step 1: Empathize. Listen, and then show that you’ve heard by recapping how it looks from the team members’ point of view. Indicate that you understand what the people are going through. You know that times are tough, and circumstances are particularly difficult. Like Bill Clinton, you can feel their pain. This step is a cliché because it’s true, and it works. People calm down when they can tell their story and know that it’s heard.
Step 2: Offer support. Demonstrate commitment to lending a helping hand if the situation gets worse. Strategize with team members about what might be done to remove obstacles, while avoiding the temptation to jump in to do it yourself. Suggest one action that you might take to help if they need it. Empower them by backing them up — they can do what they think needs to be done, knowing that they have your support. Sometimes they will take you up on an offer to intercede, but often they will hold the offer in reserve.
Step 3: Invoke higher principles. Why are we doing this in the first place? In the heat of the moment, the only thing that seems to matter is the details that are plaguing people — often operational matters that seem like bureaucratic nuisances, like getting a form signed or meeting details nailed down. The swarming alligators make you forget that the goal was to drain the swamp. They’re tough to handle, distracting, and not very inspiring. To get perspective, zoom out to remind people of the vision, purpose, and principles that make the frustrations worth enduring. Lifting eyes to the prize can smooth tensions and inspire renewed effort.
Listen, support, and uplift. These steps are good practice even when times are not tense. When people feel understood, empowered, and guided by higher goals, tensions are defused and momentum restored.