there has never been a better time for change

Leading through long-term uncertainty

Lee Hecht Harrison Penna Article 5 mins
We live in an age of anxiety. Tempestuous change is sweeping through our globalised world, encompassing great demographic, political, economic and technological upheavals. These factors, either separately or in combination, have a profound impact on businesses, and none but the most myopic of workers can fail to be aware of these currents.

Issues such as Brexit, economic uncertainty and the disruption caused by new technology and employment patterns all contribute to employees’ anxiety over job security. And as these changes are ongoing creating long periods of uncertainty, this anxiety can manifest itself in poor morale, lower engagement and reduced productivity. Furthermore, it can lead to a general, pervading sense of dread that can make the business an unhappy place to work, which has a knock-on effect on talent attraction, engagement and retention.

What is demanded of leaders?

Periods of great change call for great leaders; people who are capable of making tough choices and having difficult conversations without damaging the corporate brand or adding to employees’ existing anxieties. At the same time, these leaders still need to drive growth, innovation and profit, while continuing to protect the corporate brand.

Leaders that fully and effectively support their workforce through troubled times, whether that be those remaining in the company or being transitioned out, can give businesses a significant advantage over their competitors during this era of anxiety. By creating a company-wide culture that helps to boost employee engagement, productivity and morale they will get the best out of their employees, and smooth the business’ path towards stability.

When the times get tough

Ask the captain of any sports team, and they’ll tell you that leadership is easy when things are going well. It is in periods of great upheaval and uncertainty that leaders really earn their salary; however, unique scenarios typically demand a different approach to leadership and the skills to put this into effect. We know from our research that only one in four managers feel confident in having difficult career conversations with their teams. That leaves three quarters of your workforce at an increased risk of being in  a conversation or situation that turns sour.  And with 76% of workers admitting to voicing a negative opinion about a current or previous employer either online or to their colleagues, friends and family, this is not something to be taken lightly.

Challenges for the new breed of leader

In this age of rapid and often bewildering change, most employees understand the inevitability of business transformation, and in many cases workers have embraced new opportunities such as the gig economy. But while they might recognise the business imperative of restructuring and redundancies, they still expect to be treated with dignity and respect.

It is up to a business’ leadership to manage these momentous changes with the greatest possible transparency and sensitivity. Handled poorly, business transformation can lead to long-term damage to corporate reputation and workforce morale. In our hyper-connected age, all it takes is a single tweet or a LinkedIn post to do tremendous damage to both. Also given the rise in ‘boomerang’ employees (78% of workers would consider returning to an ex-employer if the timing and the deal were right), an organisation could soon find themselves trying to attract strong, recently-departed workers.

The R-word: Handling the situation right

During times of change, one of the biggest work-based worries is the threat of redundancy, but it is not the only concern that leaders need to address. Workers can also be worried about their future role in the company, whether they will need to relocate or learn new skills; they might also be happy to leave the company, but apprehensive about how they will find a new job or career.

Often, businesses will stipulate a reduction in headcount from various departments, a task that leaders are then expected to perform with as much sensitivity as they can manage. This is an awesome responsibility, as these conversations can have a profound impact on employee morale, corporate reputation and even the business’ future performance.

This last point is important, because leaders have an important role to play in retaining the very best talent in the organisation where possible. While they might be responsible for ‘rationalising’ a certain business unit, they also need to review existing talent and see if they can retain it elsewhere in the business through redeployment. Whatever the situation might be, leaders can become stretched and pressured to handle it the right way. With a demand on pace and efficiency, there is can be a lot riding on your leaders shoulders.  

In the case of redundancy, leaders need to communicate the news sensitively while providing the necessary support when going through the transition. Few things are more dangerous to corporate reputation than hard-heartedly handing out P45s to long-serving members of staff: they deserve the courtesy of respect, and support in their next career move. By making career transition services available to all those affected, businesses can help protect their employer brand, and ensure that departing staff remain advocates of the company.

 

Be a leader of change

Some organisations are already well equipped for change. They have an inspirational, thought-leading culture where they seem to be the creators of change. At the forefront, their leaders are able to innovate, engage and deliver a competitor advantage that puts them miles ahead. The common practices you’ll see amongst these organisations are clear. Their leaders embrace change, practice agility and welcome uncertainty. So what does it take for your leaders to handle uncertainty successfully?

  • Empathy – during uncertainty, anxiety levels can be high. Having empathic, meaningful conversations with employees and offering career support can be highly beneficial during change. Whether that be around redundancies, redeployment or their career development, training leaders to talk openly and sensitively can significantly allay workers’ worries about the future, improve morale, increase productivity, boost employee attraction and retention, and also reduce severance costs.
  • Listen and communicate – this may seem obvious, however especially during tough times, leaders can often shutdown communication and struggle to demonstrate the ability to listen. Only 55% of employees said their managers listen during career conversations at the best of times so simply developing your leaders to understand the power of listening can make a real difference. When leaders engage in a genuine two-way conversation you can expect to see a real uplift in engagement and retention.
  • Resilience – easier said than done, right? A business undergoing transformation needs leaders with considerable reserves of resilience, grit and clear-headedness to make the tough decisions that are right for the organisation. Businesses would be wise, therefore, to identify those who harness this skill and can lead through transformation, and give them the powers and responsibility to ensure they make it a success.
  • Agility – leaders are being stretched by the speed of change. Whether it is adapting to flatter structures or having to motivate remote teams, leaders need the ability to react to short-term challenges and be proactive in identifying and responding to longer-term challenges. Embedding agile behaviours amongst leaders can ensure talk turns into action when it really counts.
  • A plan – planning for uncertainty might feel like roaming around in the dark. However knowing that change is constant, having the right leadership and career development practices in place can mitigate risk. Enabling a culture where employee’s development is common practice, can engage and inspire staff to be productive throughout any circumstance.

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