How to Help a Manager Who’s Struggling Right Now


Not surprisingly, in the last few weeks I’ve been contacted by board and C-level leaders, asking how they can rally and galvanize managers who appear to be buckling under the pressures and disruptions of the pandemic.


These clients are grappling with issues like operational and supply chain problems, management of remote workforces, market changes, extreme drops in revenue and margin, etc. — and that’s before taking into account their own health; family struggles; and the general crisis in confidence that’s actually a completely reasonable response to fires, storms, injustices, and polarized politics.


I’ve been suggesting two general approaches that usually get an improved result fairly quickly, even if additional repair work is needed for the long term.


Work as a Tight Team of Two


The first approach usually works best in smaller operations, where the senior leader has direct access to the manager and greater awareness of their work process and issues. Here are the basic instructions, which can be modified to meet the needs of your particular situation:



  • Reassure the manager that it’s natural to feel overwhelmed because the situation is, in fact, overwhelming.
  • Suggest that for the next few weeks, you’re going to do an experiment, and check in daily (or two or three times each week). The purpose is to make sure that you and the manager are both on the same page; the manager has the support they need from you; and you’re both focusing on the stuff that matters most, while still keeping track of the things that are not absolutely necessary immediately.
  • This will give you a chance to confer on the biggest issues they’re facing and be aware of what they’re worried about: Either you’ll agree that those are indeed the most important things, or you’ll be able to give guidance. If you hold these meetings consistently for three weeks, you’ll have a better sense of the manager’s judgment and effectiveness, meanwhile providing consistent modeling for assessing a situation and thinking it through. Acknowledge to the manager that by working this way, they won’t be in the position of only speaking to you when they have a problem, which can make them feel weak and inadequate. Emphasize that you both need partnership and collaboration more than ever.
  • After three weeks or so, ask the manager if checking in has changed their point of view about anything; which areas they feel more or less confident about than they did a few weeks ago; if they’re seeing the need for any policy changes; and what additional areas they’ve noted need additional or different attention.

Working closely in this way will give you new insights and highlight any areas in which the manager needs additional development, or where structural changes would help them use their strengths more effectively.


Reaffirm the Mission and Engage the Team


The second approach is usually relevant in larger organizations. Typically, when a manager is struggling, we clarify goals or required outcomes, discuss how we will measure performance, and then assume the leader will go about their business. But if they‘re feeling so disrupted by current conditions that they’re not coping well, just being clearer about expectations and metrics won’t help; in fact, doing that may actually reinforce whatever fear or negativity the manager is already feeling, without improving their output or functioning at all.


In that case, your target is the manager’s team members, with the goal of confirming that the organization is able to implement its plans. Even if the manager is behaving ineffectively, there are likely to be team members who are just hoping someone will step in and provide direction so they can get the work handled.


Have the senior leader call a meeting to reaffirm the organization’s mission, acknowledge the difficult challenges, and promise ongoing involvement and support. Drawing out the team’s concerns and commitments will provide the basis for a mini operating plan that can be managed through a daily stand-up process, similar to the “tight team of two,” above. Sometimes, once the struggling manager realizes that things are starting to work, their fears diminish and they begin to function and participate again. In the longer term, you can evaluate what support the manager needs or if they’re actually not suited to their job.


Have Respect and Compassion


Whatever the size of your organization, if you have managers who are having a hard time, it’s crucial — not only for them, but for the rest of the organization — that you treat them with compassion and respect while working to ensure the organization is able to perform. If you think of the situation as a short-term salvage initiative rather than a permanent way of doing business, it’ll be easier to provide the necessary extra support, while you determine the best path for the future.

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Author: Liz Kislik


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