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Updated Oct 20, 2023

5 Tips for Guiding Your Team Through a Rough Patch

All businesses face tough times eventually. Here’s how to lead your team through a challenge.

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Sean Peek, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Every business has to weather a rough patch at some point, and while business owners must make tough decisions on how to improve their situation, they also have to pay close attention to team morale. The most damage to a company often comes from low spirits among employees. 

Tough times may arise for a variety of reasons. Sales numbers could be low, or your company may be facing the prospect of downsizing. Or maybe your team members are struggling to adapt to a change in your company’s organizational structure or a hybrid work environment. Whatever the cause, knowing how to lead your team through trying periods is vital to your business’s long-term success.

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How to lead your team through tough times

Based on advice from company leaders and entrepreneurs, here are five smart ways you can keep your staff motivated to persevere through tough times. [Read related article: What Kind of Leader Are You?]

Communicate transparently about the situation.

During times of crisis, communication with employees — whether done well or poorly — plays a huge role in how your team reacts to the situation and moves forward. 

Your instinct might be to shield team members from what’s going on with the business and not keep them informed, said Arnold Kamler, owner of Kent International, but that may leave staffers feeling like they’re in the dark. On the other end of the spectrum, he said, misleading statements that suggest everything is great are just as harmful. It’s critical to be as open, honest and transparent as you can be about the headwinds the company is facing. 

“Communicate what is happening. Employees need to know, and they should hear it from the most senior leader,” said Kim Littlefield, partner–relationship manager at Keystone Partners. “News is going to get out, so it’s better for leadership to consult with HR, the board, legal and/or PR as early in the process as possible to create a strong public statement.” 

Littlefield recommends addressing three key areas in your statement: 

  1. What happened or is happening
  2. What decisions have been made (including the business rationale)
  3. What the plan is going forward 

In your communications, try to exude confidence and a positive outlook on the situation. 

“If your staff members see you panicking, they’ll think it’s time to panic,” said Miko Branch, co-founder of Miss Jessie’s. “If they see you showing strength, then they’ll feel confident in your ability to make the right decisions for both them and the company. You want your employees to trust your leadership.” 

“Rather than focus on these changes as negative, we recommend leaders look for ways to … focus on the positive impact to the organization and the employees,” added Littlefield. “When employees see decisions as necessary to protect the future success of the organization, it can help them [move] forward more quickly.”

Any updates about the state of your organization or the path forward during a crisis should come from the most senior leader. If it is a company-wide issue, this may be the business owner or CEO. If the problem is limited to one team, the appropriate leader may be the department manager.

Find the lessons to be learned.

Matthew Katz, former CEO of Verifi, warns against thinking the missteps that brought your team or company to this point won’t be repeated. It’s crucial to learn from your mistakes so you can handle similar situations better in the future. 

“Keep moving forward,” Katz told Business News Daily. “[Don’t] get mired down and feel powerless to make the changes based on these insights.” 

In the process of analyzing and evaluating mistakes, it’s important not to place blame and create animosity among your team, said Branch. You should also be open to thoughts and solutions from employees. 

“Never point fingers at any staff members,” Branch said. “Working as a team is key to getting through tough times. Always be open to new ideas and strategies from any staff member [too]. You never know where the next big idea will come from!”

Share your vision for the future.

Being clear and communicative about how the team and company plan to move forward will help part the storm clouds for your employees. 

“You need to know where you are going before you can get there,” Littlefield said. “Great business leaders know how to paint a vivid picture of the future. Fueled by their passion to achieve their vision, they make it crystal clear what employees can do to get involved and emphasize how crucial each person’s role is.” 

For employees to truly hear and remember the message, they need to be exposed to it several times, said Littlefield. She said good managers will ask their employees, “How are you doing, and how can I help?” 

“By asking how they can help, managers show their investment in that person’s success and their willingness to be a resource in some way to help them get there,” Littlefield added. 

Once your team starts to bounce back, don’t lose the momentum you’ve created. Maintain your leadership strength when things are going well to make sure you’ve earned your team’s trust for the next low point, said Kamler. 

“It is important for leadership to be strong and solid all of the time,” he said. “If leadership is not consistent with managers and staff during normal times, they will not receive the trust and hard work of their team when needed most.”

Celebrate large and small wins.

When your company is going through difficult times, it can be easy to dwell on everything that’s going wrong, which will eventually result in low morale across the business. However, amidst rough patches, remember to still celebrate large and small wins to keep morale high and to remind your team that their work is valuable. 

Whenever possible, break large company goals into smaller, more attainable objectives and start tracking team progress. Whenever your team achieves a small goal, such as meeting a project deadline, getting a higher click-through rate or launching a new campaign successfully, celebrate the win. 

Reinvigorating your team with positivity will help boost morale during tough times. As a result, you will see more confidence and productivity across your staff.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Taking time to honor achievements, no matter how small, can lead to a significant boost in team morale, especially in challenging times.

Ask for honest feedback.

It can be tempting for business owners to want to fix everything and bear the burden when things aren’t going as expected. However, trying to solve problems on your own can do two damaging things to your business. First, you could inadvertently create a negative company culture in which employees don’t feel they can collaborate or solve problems together. And second, the rough patch may become bigger than you are capable of solving alone. 

When your organization is in a rough patch, ask for honest feedback from your employees. Prepare for tough feedback you may not want to hear but should strive to embrace anyway. Listening to the different perspectives across your team allows you to look at the problem holistically and can result in a stronger team dynamic. 

As you solicit input, avoid asking vague questions. Get to the root of the issue by asking engaging questions, such as:

  • “How is this affecting you and your team?”
  • “What changes do you think would most benefit the company?”
  • “What can I do to better support you and your team?” 

Why strong leadership matters during rough patches

Leading your team during a rough patch is no easy task. It can be hard to see the positive and create a better workplace when everything seems to be falling apart. But every company goes through rough patches and growing pains, and it’s during these times that a team most needs a strong leader to help them weather the storm. [Get leadership tips for first-time managers.]

“If employees don’t have confidence in the leadership team, they may question the future of the organization, wonder whether their role is safe and either become disengaged or start to look for a new job,” Littlefield told Business News Daily. “Employees need to feel heard, understood, recognized and appreciated by their managers … especially during rough patches.” 

Remaining calm in a crisis may seem like an uphill battle, but it makes all the difference in getting your team to the other side. It’s perfectly natural to feel stress during tough times, but managing that stress is essential to keeping your business alive. Leaders and managers greatly affect workplace culture, and your emotional state will shape your team’s feelings.

Looking at the challenge your team is facing as a learning opportunity can be a helpful tactic in changing your perspective as a leader. If you learn how to reframe a rough situation for yourself, it’s easier to convey hope and optimism to your team. That’s not to say you should demonstrate false (or even toxic) positivity, but a leader who can put a different spin on a negative situation can inspire team members to push through.

Did You Know?Did you know
Employees are sick of hearing overused buzzwords like "the new normal" and "synergy." Leaders should choose their words carefully and avoid using cliches.

Weathering stormy times

No matter what caused the crisis you’re facing, the guiding principles outlined above can help you and your team get through it together. A thoughtful, strategic approach is necessary to ensure employee retention and continued operations. The last thing you want is for tough times to escalate to the point of employee resignations and interrupted productivity. As a leader, you have the opportunity to shift the workplace environment from stressed to hopeful. Once the storm has passed, you and your team may even find you’ve grown stronger because of it. 

Natalie Hamingson and Nicole Fallon contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article. 

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Sean Peek, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Analyst
Sean Peek is the co-founder of a self-funded small business that employs more than a dozen team members. His years of hands-on entrepreneurial experience in bootstrapping, operations management, process automation and leadership have strengthened his knowledge of the B2B world and the most pressing issues facing business owners today. Peek uses his expertise to guide fellow small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs in the areas of marketing, finance and software technology. Peek excels at developing customer bases and fostering long-term client relationships, using lean principles to drive efficiency and cost-saving, and identifying growth areas. He has demonstrated his business savvy through collaborations with Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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