Leading through times of uncertainty and change is a critical skill for any individual with leadership responsibility.
Whether the uncertainty stems from a shift in the business’ strategic direction, a change in the senior leadership team or a change in external conditions e.g. Brexit, it is key that the change is communicated and worked through with the best interests of the employee base at heart.
With so much risk (and reward) riding on change programmes for the business, it’s crucial for HR leaders to be leading from the front.
These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest HR Leadership Think Tank (HRLTT) held on Tuesday 29th November 2016, hosted at Huddle by Nicola Rowledge (HR Director) and titled ‘leading through times of uncertainty’.
The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’
Uncertainty, what is it and how does it affect us?
Change is often described as the only constant and change can = uncertainty. There are a number of factors which spark uncertainty, both at an individual and group level:
- Lack of comms or consistency in comms which means there is a gap in employees’ understanding and knowledge of a situation. This can lead employees to feel there’s more than meets the eye. Human nature is to second guess and often to negatively hypothesise both what the gap is, and the reasons for this not having been communicated.
- It’s a natural response when there’s an unknown to feel nervous and threatened; uncertainty puts the norm at risk – jobs, homes, livelihoods, hobbies – this has implications on a personal level around the ability to support ourselves/loved ones.
- It can be a vicious cycle – once the things that we base our livelihoods on are threatened, this naturally leads to a level of stress which means absence, poor performance and turnover within the employee base becomes more likely.
- Uncertainty can threaten employees’ identities, particularly within a start-up environment where employees are hugely bought into the values, ethos and the original purpose of the organisation e.g. the product they’ve created from scratch, the new concept they’ve launched etc.
How do you evolve a culture through times of change?
Culture is a big buzzword and a positive culture is something we all know we should be contributing towards. Change impacts the status quo of culture as employees know it and it’s easy for leadership to use culture as the answer without asking the questions in the first place.
- Go back to basics – ask who are we as an organisation and what are we going to be? A leader needs to establish what this new essence of the organisation will be.
- Everyone wants to be an ‘employee of choice’, but for what choice? Take it a level deeper to see what truly makes your organisation unique. If employees can see where they are heading, it’s much easier to get excited about the future rather than yearning for what went before. It also gives employees the choice to decide if this is something they want to be actively part of or not.
- Remember, HR is an enabler – create and enable the things which naturally establish a great culture.
- Focus on the things which remain fantastic through change and the opportunities change can bring. It’s easy to feel much is lost as an organisation transitions, but there will be new exciting things which weren’t on the cards before.
- Align values and EVP both internally and externally; these need to go hand-in-hand with cultural change.
How do you take employees on a journey and engage top talent?
- Move away from the rhetoric of a ‘change programme’; again, change is a constant.
- Acknowledge that even those who describe themselves as ‘change lovers’ will still have an underlying level of uncertainty when the comfortable norm shifts. Actively recruiting for change enthusiasts can be a good plan, but the work doesn’t stop there; all employees need support.
- Encourage active participation and engagement in change – invite employees to open Q&A sessions, give people their say. If employees aren’t listening, then comms becomes a futile exercise.
- Flex the messaging – it’s the difference between uniformity and consistency of the communication. Each business area, country or employee level can receive a consistent message without it having to be directly replicated. The messaging should be tailored to ensure it’s appropriate for the audience.
- Be transparent. What can you offer now, what will you never be able to offer and what do you hope to offer at some point?
- As leaders, share more and encourage all leaders to do the same. Don’t hold back with the view that ‘knowledge is power’.
- Look at what motivates employees and don’t assume a blanket approach. Is it stock options? Is it work friendships? Is it the product they’ve developed from scratch? Engage employees with their passions through change.
- Build on the above and how the journey will make things even better. If you’re in a start-up and it’s the close knit relationships employees crave, demonstrate being a small fish in a big pond and being part of a bigger ‘family’ can be a great thing.
- Remember to take all employees along with you. ‘Top talent’ focus is important, but don’t forget that who was top talent when your organisation started may not be the top talent you need as your business grows and develops.
How can leaders (both business and HR) ensure they are exactly that?
- Create humanity within change – bring your ‘whole’ self to work. Adopt an understanding approach that everyone finds change and uncertainty unsettling, rather than the default being that everyone has to grin and bear it.
- Project a clear picture of where the business is going. Be open about the great outcomes, and the level of risk for the less favourable ones. People want to know how likely it is that e.g. the IPO will fly, or that their mortgage may be under threat.
- Don’t forget leaders also need leadership through change. Ensure the language engages all e.g. for a numbers-focused CEO who is likely having further pressure on figures through change, help them see how putting people first impacts their bottom line and how, if done well, they can look good to stakeholders, to the board, to the wider employee base.
- Encourage the reins to be loosened and keep eyes firmly up. Would a small revenue drop in the short term mean that through the change it can increase threefold if you look three quarters down the line?
- Manage expectations, constantly. For employees and stock markets alike, transparency and realistic projections create trust.
- Remember it’s the responsibility for all in the organisation to go through change together. Leaders are key to the success but they can’t always be ‘everything’. Open the conversation around what leaders are, what they aren’t and what they need to be.
Change is something we all work with everyday and we need to look at how we thrive, not just survive. Resilience is key and this incorporates all sorts of factors including wellbeing, emotional control, social support etc. which all influence adaptability. A sense of purpose and direction can motivate even when adversity initially seems guaranteed.