Leadership Under Pressure: Communication Tips for Responding to the Great Resignation

Retention is challenging right now. The key for keeping your top talent and handling leadership under pressure? Improving communication.

people talking in office dealing with the challenges of leadership under pressure and the Great Resignation

For Leaders Under Pressure, Communication Is The Critical Lever

The number of articles on “The Great Resignation” continues to grow exponentially. Every day, we see more suggestions on how to retain top talent.

But for many organizations, particularly those of us in the nonprofit space, even helpful articles can create feelings of helplessness. We don’t have the same access to capital and consultants as many of our for-profit counterparts, so for our sector, the familiar advice around increasing compensation or offering flexible work arrangements to improve retention just isn’t that relevant or useful.

In fact, leadership under pressure is nothing new for those of us in the traditional nonprofit structure, which already puts our organizations in a proverbial pressure cooker. No matter the year, nonprofits have always faced the dual challenges of increased impact and decreased funding. The past 2 years of the pandemic have only exacerbated these issues, layering on additional pressure on our people and creating stresses in our systems. 

Just as we started to get our footing in responding to the COVID crisis and adjusting to “the new normal,” the Great Resignation began to lure away top talent at an unsustainable rate, and the already-existing cracks began to widen.

Though nonprofits played an important role in the global response to COVID, the pandemic has diminished our collective capacity to respond to the critical needs that have emerged during this time. One report found that in the U.S., demand for services is up 60%, but the ability to respond to those demands has declined by nearly 40%.

What’s driving this gulf? There’s simply too much to do and too few hands to do it; nonprofit burnout is on the rise and more than half of respondents report that the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have negatively impacted their organizations’ retention strategies and tactics. 

For many nonprofits and businesses alike, the Great Resignation signals a looming crisis. How do organizations handle shifting priorities in the face of a shortage of talent and resources? Today’s leaders are under pressure like never before. To quote Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song from the recent film Encanto, right now many organizational leaders are feeling “Pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop.”

The Key to Effective Leadership Under Pressure? Improving Communication

It’s easy to feel paralyzed in these circumstances, but there are straightforward, cost-effective ways to respond (that don’t require Board approval or additional fundraising, for those of us in the sector).

The key to lessening that pressure and keeping your top talent is a focus on improving communication

Communication is the lever you need to help you, your team, and your organization survive and thrive in the face of challenge and crisis. And communicating in a crisis is a key way that leaders can pull the lever of communication to help release that pressure.

Here are 7 tips for leaders to try.

7 Communication Tips for Leaders Under Pressure

1. Open the taps.

Instead of waiting to communicate when something is urgent or problematic, make communications regular, consistent, and expected. Make sure your teams know how and when you will communicate with them, as well as when and how to communicate up and across the organization.

As you increase communication, solicit feedback not just about the frequency, but also about the tone. What are people hearing, and how are they internalizing what you’re saying?

And make sure you’re listening – not with your own agenda, but for understanding. Probe for facts, feelings, and values as you listen. Did your intent come through, or did it get muddled? Actively listening to understand is critical to effective leadership under pressure, but may be overlooked when survival is your focus. As you open the taps, make sure the water runs clear.

2. Release all the valves.

Don’t assume you know how others feel. Instead, be deliberately inclusive, making sure to reach out to people with different experiences, backgrounds, roles, and points of view. Uncover innovative or unprecedented solutions by listening to everyone in your organization.

To do so, intentionally create the time and space for new voices, and try new ways to create an inclusive leadership culture. For example, if you’ve done surveys in the past, switch to open, in-person dialogues. If you’ve asked for input in large public forums, try collecting feedback online instead – perhaps anonymously, if you’re really seeking candor. If you tend to meet in groups, make time for more one-on-one conversations. Consciously changing even just the space for feedback can help change the participation levels and reveal relevant (and potentially untapped) insights and opportunities.

3. Know what’s in your toolbox.

Be honest about your spheres of influence and control and help others see their own. For example, you probably don’t have the ability to completely restructure your organization’s pay scale to retain talent, so don’t pretend that you do. Point out where your influence ends and then how you can work together to see the change you all want.

Being open about your influence may also uncover unique solutions. When you step back, someone who does have the ability to create change has a chance to step forward.

4. Ask for help.

Acknowledge the Great Resignation and your own struggles with leading under pressure, and help others do the same. Employees everywhere are dealing with burnout, and not only see disengagement as a reason to leave, but also worry about picking up additional work to compensate for lost roles.

Acknowledging burnout is a first step; be vulnerable and transparent. And then take active steps to help yourself and others to increase your resilience as leaders.

We’ve all been through a pandemic – all of us have experienced loss and stress. Your team members and colleagues need to know that they’re not alone. It might seem paradoxical to admit fears and weaknesses, but it actually creates trust and helps increase psychological safety.

5. Get back to basics.

Help your people reconnect to purpose. Back in 2009, Simon Sinek suggested that we all “start with the why.” That advice is even more important in 2022. Now more than ever, teams need to feel like an integral part of their organization’s mission. A lot of us may have been heads down for the past couple of years, just trying to survive, but remind yourself and your colleagues what brought you to your organization in the first place. Why do you all choose to work there? It’s likely your mission.

Despite all the changes in the world, your mission or purpose probably did not change, but how you achieve that mission undoubtedly has changed. That’s why organizational leaders everywhere are making a mindset shift towards purposeful leadership now.

So, take a breath and invest much more time helping your team making the connection on why their work matters. Look at everyone on your team and help each of them tie their daily work back to their beliefs so they have value alignment

6. Don’t get swept away.

Now that you’ve opened the valves and released some of the pressure, you may hear so many suggestions that the pressure builds again. Stop before that happens and identify opportunities to delegate effectively and facilitate trust-building and the development of others as you go.

If someone has a great idea to improve employee satisfaction, ask them to research it. Conduct sessions with interested team members to brainstorm solutions, and then have them assign the follow-up amongst themselves.

And remember, leadership development is not just for people in the C-suite. Research finds that one of the main reasons why so many people are leaving their jobs right now is a lack of opportunity for professional development. Providing equitable access to opportunities for growth and development not only brings better solutions, it also increase employee engagement and satisfaction.

The skills leaders use every day to bring people together around a common goal are the very skills that will help us attract and retain talent.

7. Enjoy the ride.

Especially now, it’s very easy to see and focus on what’s hard or going wrong, and dismiss accomplishments and what’s going right

Instead, deliberately seek out and celebrate the “small wins” and little moments of joy. The current working environment may not be described as “fun” or “enjoyable,” but you can help change that through appreciation and recognition. Data show strong connections between showing gratitude at work and employee engagement

Some leaders start their meetings by sharing a real example of how the organization is making an impact on clients, customers, the community, or the world. Why not add a “praise our people” moment too, and call out individuals for their specific contributions? However you approach it, making the effort to communicate some acknowledgement of gratitude will give back much more than the time it takes to share.

A Final Word on Leadership Under Pressure

Leading with the pressures of COVID, the Great Resignation, the new hybrid workplace, and finding new ways to achieve your organizational business priorities or nonprofit mission are unlikely to go away any time soon.

That’s why it’s crucial that you find and utilize the communication tips and skills that will best serve you and your organization and help you release the pressure.

To go back to the Encanto song, we all need to “shake the crushing weight” of leadership under pressure right now to “free up some room for joy.” These 7 tips will help you do just that.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

If you and your team are facing the challenges of leadership under pressure, partner with us for a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Authentic Leadership, Communication Skills, Feedback That Works, Psychological Safety & Trust, Resilience-Building, Leading Virtual & Hybrid Teams, and more. Or, partner with our experts in nonprofit leadership to build a more resilient nonprofit organization for tomorrow.

August 25, 2022
Eugenia Slaydon
About the Author(s)
Michelle Schneider
Michelle Schneider is part of CCL’s Societal Advancement’s Insights & Impact Group where she serves as Evaluation Faculty, helping to design and deliver evaluation services to measure the impact of CCL’s work on nonprofit leaders, their organizations, and the communities they serve. She has led work in the nonprofit sector for 20 years in various capacities, including as executive director, board member, and external evaluator.
Brook Wingate
Brook serves as Director of Development & Alumni Relations for CCL and is a member of CCL’s Societal Advancement Leadership Team. Brook leads a team that is responsible for business development and philanthropy that increase CCL’s impact in the social sector. Brook brings 20+ years of nonprofit leadership experience to CCL, including work in independent schools, regional professional theater, United Way, and a statewide child welfare agency.

Related Content

Lead With That: What Serena Williams Can Teach Us About Resilience & Leadership podcast
Podcast

Lead With That: What Serena Williams Can Teach Us About Resilience & Leadership

Tennis superstar Serena Williams has began her farewell tour with tennis. She has won more Grand Slam singles titles than anyone, along with 3 gold medals in Olympic doubles, and nearly $100 million in prize money. She has taken her tennis success into venture capitalism as she takes a step back to focus on her family now. There is so much leadership wisdom to glean from her: What philosophies guided her on way to success? How is she going to lead her VC firm, and her other ventures with family and children? How has her ability to bounce back shaped her into one of the world’s Greatest Of All Time? In this episode – part profile, part exploration – Allison and Ren discuss the remarkable and resilient Serena Williams, and encourage listeners to lead with that.

Please update your browser.

CCL.org requires a modern browser for an enhanced and secure user experience. Internet Explorer is no longer supported or recommended by Microsoft. The Center for Creative Leadership recommends that you upgrade to Microsoft Edge or similar.

Chrome

Edge

Firefox