“The only constant in life is change,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus explained about 2,500 years ago. Since then, we’ve developed methodologies, tools and tricks for managing change and billions of dollars are spent on change management each year, but now, perhaps more than ever before, corporate leaders are being challenged to up their game. They need to go beyond managing change, to managing and leading through upcoming changes which are yet to be defined; they need to lead through uncertainty.
The last three years have been like a decathlon for leaders – long, grueling and with a series of different challenges. Of necessity, leaders have had to divide their attention between responding to the pandemic and managing a remote workforce and have been even further stretched by issues such as social justice, supply chain disruption, climate change, hybrid work arrangements, and geopolitical instability. We won’t pretend to know exactly what’s coming next (and even if we knew the details, they would affect each team differently, depending on industry, funding model, customer base, size of the company, etc.), but we do see a need to look closely at how leaders can be prepared to maintain effective, cohesive teams, regardless of what the next years bring.
First, the fundamentals. Studies show (and my personal experience agrees) that what employees want most from a leader is respect. To make your employees feel respected, you must listen to them. Take some time to develop awareness on your listening habits and practicing behaviors to improve those habits. Do you interrupt your employees when they are talking? Do you constantly steamroll past topics that you don’t want to discuss? Celeste Headlee, a successful writer and radio host, gave some great listening advice in a TED talk that I’ve referenced previously. She said, don’t think about showing that you’re listening by nodding, asking clarifying questions, making eye contact, etc. Instead, actually pay attention to the speaker and LISTEN, and the fact that you’re listening will be evident. As an organization, there are multiple ways that leadership can listen to its employees. Surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one discussions with managers can all be useful channels for understanding employees’ opinions and gathering ideas.
Show people respect by respecting their time. If a conversation gets off topic or wanders, get it back on topic and keep it there. By setting limits on topics and discussion time, you show your employees that you respect what they have come to say, and you respect the time they’ve committed. If a discussion only takes 10 minutes and you’ve scheduled 30 minutes, give them some time back.
Remember to respect yourself as well. To have the emotional energy needed to lead employees during seasons of uncertainty, leaders can’t neglect themselves in the process. Know your personal support system and reach out when your energy or enthusiasm wanes.
Keep Your Communications Truthful and Positive
With healthy working relationships in place, leaders can effectively lead through uncertainty. We believe the keys components to success can be summed up in communication and preparation.
• Communicate clearly, simply, frequently. Uncertainty and a crisis mindset limit people’s capacity to absorb information. To convey crucial information to employees, keep messages simple, to the point and actionable.
• Lead with compassion. Every working adult has a unique situation to deal with during times of uncertainty. It’s important for leaders to listen and adapt accordingly. This may mean adapting their work schedule or providing new tools. Or for concerns unrelated to work, it may mean mentioning the resources your organization provides to help manage stress, such as an employee assistance program.
• Be truthful. Trust is never more important than in times of uncertainty. Be honest about where things stand, differentiating clearly between what is known and unknown, and don’t minimize or speculate. A survey of 500 professionals done by the Lore Institute showed that only 28% of employees want a cheerful or happy manager. 90% said they want honesty and integrity from their manager. They’d rather trust you than like you.
• Highlight the things you can control. There are a few things that will remain certain, or at least under your control, regardless of the situation. One of these is the company’s mission. Anchor the team on the mission and remind them of why their work is important. The way they work may be changing, but the ultimate purpose should remain the same.
• Focus on the affirmative. People tend to pay more attention to positively framed information. Negative information can erode trust. Frame instructions as “dos” (best practices and benefits) rather than “don’ts” (what people shouldn’t do, or debunking myths).
Preparing for Change and Structuring an Agile Core Team
Some events will require an organization to make decisions faster than usual, decisions that will alter the annual plans that were made so carefully. In many organizations, leaders are involved in an annual planning cycle which includes collectively deciding on strategies, budgets, and operating plans once a year and then managing operations in accordance with those goals and budgets. A more agile, ‘crisis’ version of the organizational structure should be established, which can be activated as needed. This crisis structure should have flexibility and the capability to act collectively, quickly, and across the whole organization as challenges arise. Within the structure, leadership must identify an inner core: a small group of managers who have the judgment and internal credibility to lead the response. Managers must work together to diagnose the current situation, consider its practical implications, explore how it might evolve, and establish and execute appropriate actions. The more communication (quick communication), the better. Managers should reach externally to experts as needed, and also deep into their own organization for frontline insights—such as those that a customer-service representative could provide on customer experience.
Respecting your team, communicating honestly, and having a plan in place will help prepare your organization for the only constant we know – that change is always coming.