How to lead your team in challenging times

Sara Holmberg
June 5, 2024
How to lead your team in challenging times

If you look at great teams throughout history - whether in business, sport, or anything else in between - they’re all guaranteed to have one thing in common.

And that’s great leadership.

Today, in the world of work, leadership is so much more than simply telling people what to do or having the ability to make decisions. And when there’s an economic downturn and several global challenges, leadership is more important than ever.  

Worry about losing a job, increased living costs and doing more with less are just some of the concerns from employees. Worldwide, 44% of employees said they experienced a lot of stress the previous day. So the struggle is real.

Let’s cover what skills you need as a leader, and how to best lead in challenging times.  

“Hard times don’t create heroes. It is during the hard times when the ‘hero’ within us is revealed.”

What makes a great leader?

If we take popular culture as a benchmark, we’re led to believe leaders are driven, fearless, ruthless, courageous, determined, and (often) cold-hearted and lacking in compassion.

Not all of these traits are necessarily bad (apart from the last ones) but there’s a change happening - and it’s a change that is a powerful force for good. Because effective leadership is about inspiring a shared vision, fostering a culture that promotes physiological safety and celebrates success, and driving teams forward to heights they didn’t think they’d be able to hit.  

The best leaders aren’t the cut-throat ones who want to win at all costs. Now, “soft” traits tend to be more important for teams:


The best leaders are those who embrace empathy, who build their vision on compassion, and who genuinely care about the people who follow them.

Leadership is about people, and this means talking to your people, having the passion for them to thrive, and encouraging them – in good or bad times - to always be the best versions of themselves. Scientific research supports the view that teams led by compassionate leaders tend to outperform others.


Successful leaders understand that meaningful targets are the foundation of high-performing teams. They provide clear goals, regularly follow up on progress, and support their team members when needed the most. This is particularly important when teams need to achieve more with less resources.  


Innovative leaders continuously seek feedback, stay informed about market trends and customer needs, and encourage their teams to explore new approaches. This mindset helps in nurturing an environment where innovation and change thrives. They also ensure that knowledge and best practices flow freely, enhancing the overall productivity and morale of the organisation.


Leaders who show enthusiasm for their work (even when results are poor) inspire their teams to go the extra mile. They care deeply about their people, products, and customers, and this genuine concern is evident in how they coach and interact with their team members. And they build a culture of recognition that praises their team members when they’re doing something great.


And the final point on great leadership is this; great leaders remain genuine and authentic. Leaders should avoid adopting a facade or persona that doesn’t reflect their true self. It's vital for leaders to be close to their team, showing genuine care not only for the tasks at hand but for the individuals performing those tasks as well.

Dive deeper into the art and science of leadership with our guide - 5 Winning Ways for Effective Leadership.  

What impact do great leaders have on their teams?

Now we’ve established what the best kind of leadership looks like, let’s look at the impact great leadership had on team success. Leaders who excel in their roles can significantly elevate their team's performance, engagement, and overall job satisfaction. The impact of such leadership is profound and measurable across a huge range of team dynamics.

1. Enhanced team performance

A study by Google, known as Project Aristotle, revealed that one of the most critical factors in high-performing teams is psychological safety, a climate fostered by effective leadership.  

Leaders who create an environment where team members feel safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and express their thoughts without fear of punishment are building a foundation for innovative and high-performing teams. This finding underscores the necessity for leaders to cultivate trust and openness within their teams.

During tougher times, building trust and innovation is more important than ever.  

2. Increased employee engagement

According to Gallup's State of the American Workplace report, teams with engaged employees see 21% higher profitability. Leaders who engage their team members and connect with them on an individual level contribute significantly to their motivation and overall commitment to the company's goals. Great leaders understand their team members' needs and challenges, which allows them to tailor their motivational strategies effectively, thus fostering a highly engaged workforce.

3. Improved job satisfaction and retention

Leadership quality directly affects employee retention rates. The same Gallup study highlights that managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units. This variance strongly impacts overall job satisfaction, which in turn affects retention.  

4. Development of future leaders

Effective leaders are also mentors. They recognise the potential in their team members and nurture it. By delegating responsibilities, offering challenging tasks, and providing constructive feedback, leaders help individuals in their teams acquire the skills and confidence needed to advance their careers. This commitment to developing new leaders ensures the organisation's longevity and injects fresh perspectives into the leadership pipeline.  

5. Positive Organisational Culture

Leaders set the tone for the organisational culture. A leader's attitude and values inevitably trickle down and influence the norms and behaviours within the team. Research by Deloitte points out that 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to business success. Leaders who promote a culture of fairness, respect, and integrity create an environment where employees thrive.

It’s clear great leaders are instrumental in shaping their teams' success across various aspects. Their influence extends beyond mere operational or financial metrics; it reaches into the very morale and professional development of their employees. By fostering an environment of trust, engagement, mentorship, and cultural integrity, effective leaders do not just lead; they empower.

What to focus on during tough times?

  1. Set direction, clear goals and follow up often with your team. Everyone should feel a sense of urgency, and be up to speed about your company’s and team’s progress.
  1. Develop accountability in teams; each team member should follow through on their portion of a teamwide commitment and hold themselves responsible for delivering high-quality results. Here you can harness the power of data to optimise your approach and strategies to ensure that your projects are run effectively, and your people are growing.
  1. Build psychological safety to highlight that “we’re in this together”; in times of change, teams need to embrace change and be comfortable to pitch new ideas.  
  1. Ask for support and help because leading the company towards success is not a one man job. Collecting feedback from the team to better support, find new ways of doing tasks, and improve as a leader – both from feedback and support from HR.
  1. Celebrate your wins (even if they’re small) to keep the motivation up.

Let’s sum it up

As we have discovered, the journey from good to great leadership is fuelled by a commitment to empathy, authenticity, and a relentless pursuit of improvement. It is about creating a culture that aligns with the core values of respect, integrity, and growth—where every team member thrives.  

Download our Team Success Handbook here.  

With a strong background in legal and HR consulting in firms such as Fingerprint Cards, PwC and Flex, she joined Winningtemp as Head of HR in August 2021. Sara is passionate about people and believes that the future of work and HR is moving towards an approach where employees feel valued and have the tools to reach their potential. To achieve this aim, she’s focused on working to give employees their desired level of autonomy within their roles, creating a rewards system that focuses on recognising and understanding the needs of employees, from financial welfare to mental health. Additionally, her commitment to wellbeing is shown by her work as a board member at Räddningsmissionen, a Swedish charity working for social rights ensuring everyone has access to a dignified life.

About the author
Sara Holmberg

Focusing on people

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