Leading in the Challenging Times – 7 Good Habits

Andrew really got on well with the members of his team.  For years the team had been riding on a high.  The organisation’s average growth was about 9% over a period of 12 years from 2002 to 2014.  In the second quarter of 2015 activity slowed and the growth figures evaporated.  The organisation spent the second half of 2015 ‘riding it out’.  Recruitment of new heads was put on hold and natural attrition became the downsizing strategy.  In February 2016 Andrew was charged with reducing headcount by 20%.  The mood got tense and confrontational.  Suddenly the positive vibe was replaced by a unanimous sense of fear and insecurity. Suddenly there was a new subtle pressure on relationships between managers and staff.

If your organisation is experiencing the effects of an economic slowdown or simply changing to remain relevant in a changing world, it is definitely not alone.  However, it becomes extraordinarily important that managers and supervisors are prepared to lead for the times.  Perhaps this is one reason sporting teams elect their leadership groups regularly. While we cannot do this in an organisation, we can certainly give focus to our key people on behaviours and actions that can be targeted to effectively manage people in challenging times. Here are some qualities to highlight.

Know the plan and maintain a sense of the future

The biggest mistake made by managers through challenging times is that they become immersed in ONLY surviving for today as opposed to retaining a sense of the future. A lack of direction and leadership often causes low morale. Leadership is ‘here we are today; this is where we need to go in the future – come with me!’ Therefore, if a manager has no sense of the future, how can their team?

You create a sense of future by being able to describe what’s ahead. If the future is uncertain just focus on very short term, week by week objectives.  If your team members know there is a restructure or ‘close down’ you can be focused on preparing your people to be in the best possible ‘situation’ once the event happens. In tough times you might need to increase your face to face communication with team members, rather than reduce it.

If the change is being imposed upon you, demand to know the short term plan, and if that is not available (often due to confidentiality reasons) at least gain an understanding of the short term goals and expectations that are being placed on you.  While the long term may not be clear, you have a right to know what is expected of you. Sometimes you have to manage upwards.

Act calmly and professionally, maintain perspective, and be prepared to change.

Tough economic times often lead to changes in numbers and structure. Feelings of uncertainty and insecurity can become overwhelming emotions for all concerned – including managers and supervisors.  The truth is, when leaders show outward anxiety, it catches like a cold.  On the other hand, maintaining a sense of calmness, at the least, builds a sense of perspective and continuity among team members.  Taking a deep breath and thinking before you speak is critical. How you react to events unfolding around you will be critical to the morale and productivity of your team.

Whatever you do, don’t indulge in negativity throughout a challenging period at work.  Once you start sharing you doubts and criticisms with team members – though there might be some short term satisfaction – in the long term you will cause mistrust and it will almost be impossible to lead the team into the future. Communicate your own anxieties and concerns upwards not downwards.

Being a professional manager, you may be expected to make adjustments to the way you work.  It may be your role, your style or team.  Never say ‘no’ until you have thought through the consequences of the change you are inheriting and expected to drive.  If it turns out that after contemplation you cannot commit to the new expectations, be honest with yourself and your employer.  It will save you all a lot of heartache.

Plan communications

When it comes to your more formal and less formal communication with team members, think about what you are going to say.  If the communication relates to a managed change process, it needs to be considered and consistent with the overall company strategies and any workplace relations agreements.  When communication is sloppy, there is a risk from a branding, legal and performance perspective.

Be highly disciplined about team meetings and other communication disciplines – they are like gold.  You can keep reiterating the short term objectives to your team and monitor the ‘temperature’ of the group in relation to morale and issues.  Remember, do more listening than talking.

Don’t make major announcements via email or electronic media.  Face to face meetings and on-going consultations are imperative. Debriefs after major changes are essential both at the team and individual level.

Think about and act on staff morale

Tough times are not only tough on the staff, they are tough on the leaders.  Sometimes you might lack the energy to do the disciplines that drive morale such as the pizza lunches, morning teas or recognition activities. There is nothing more important throughout a challenging period than doing little things that ‘ignite’ the energy of team members.  It’s a really important time to remember the phrases ‘well done’ and ‘great job’ when there is a genuine reason to say so.

Act with consideration for employee rights and agreements

Naivety and a lack of knowledge in relation to your team’s employment conditions is high risk.   Especially when the tough time includes a restructure or change of employment conditions, managers must know the key reference points and/or remain well advised about these. Following the policies, processes and honouring agreements is essential.

Workplace bullying and inappropriate behaviour can also be an issue in times of change, due to instability and less tolerance for costly mistakes.  Make sure you run some briefings and training on conduct and behaviour and ensure the reporting lines are clear and open should a complaint need to be made.

Refer mental health impacts to the experts

There is no place for managers to be counselling team members whose behaviours suggest that the challenging times (or other circumstances) are having a negative impact on their mental health.  Your role is to recognise that there may be an issue and refer the person to professional assistance via the organisation’s health and safety procedures or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) service.  It is important that you get the balance between demonstrating empathy and remaining focused and professional.

‘Yes I understand that you are not sleeping well – have you thought of getting some professional advice about this.  Did you know we have an EAP service available? Here is the card.’

Take care of yourself, take a break and keep up your energy levels.

During challenging times it is vital that you maintain your own energy.  That energy will be vital in conserving the energy it takes to deal with implementing the changes.  There are so many ways people ‘get away’ but remembering what is important to you outside work is important to dealing with what’s going on at work.  That one or two days’ break each week can be vital to you surviving the challenge.  Eat well, sleep well, do well!

I like professional managers to remember that leading in challenging and uncertain times is another tool in your kit.  It’s a quality that many international organisations are looking for and being able to demonstrate knowledge of what is expected in such times may land you your next big opportunity. In fact, I have a close friend and his profession is being sent to different parts of the world to supervise the closing down of sites. He is one of the calmest and most pragmatic people I know. 


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