02 | Jun | 2017

8 ways to use optimism whilst leading through organisational change

Author: Trevor-Roberts

Building enthusiasm and engagement in the workplace can be challenging, particularly during times of uncertainty and organisational change.

Questions we hear from leaders and HR professionals during these difficult times include:

  • How can I motivate colleagues to come to work and be enthusiastic about managing the next downsizing program? 
  • How do I make sure I am not too driven by across the board cost reduction targets that seem to be non-strategic?
  • How do I avoid tough decisions leading to a hard, transactional culture?
  • How can I be confident that those staying with the company are doing so out of loyalty to the business, or those around them - rather than fear about their chances elsewhere?

In times of change, what does ideal leadership look like?

Times of adversity often give rise to a sense of unpredictability, fear, anxiety, and loss of confidence among employees. When this happens, optimistic leadership is necessary. A form of leadership which gives employees the motivation, and commitment to take advantage of the potential opportunities lying on the other side of what seems to be a dark curtain of misfortune.

Much research has gone into the relationship between optimism and well-being. Optimism is now clearly associated with a better mood and less distress when facing difficult circumstances. We also understand that optimists are not burying their heads in the sand; the difference lies in the coping strategies they use. Optimistic leaders are problem solvers who improve the situation and if it simply can’t be altered they move on.

These are our insights from observing organisations that have managed these difficult situations well:

  1. Have a clear achievable destination 
During times of organisational change, businesses need leaders who can see beyond the horizon and who are willing to take calculated risks. Have a positive model of an effective business to strive towards: a clear, achievable destination. Set some clear outcomes and paint a picture of success, achievable within twelve months and preferably within each business unit. The engagement of most people derives much more from their immediate team and direct relationships than from wider corporate objectives. Your picture of success must be richer than one around costs and returns on equity: it should look to all the things people come to work to achieve.
  1. Look after people
People are more likely to tolerate changes that negatively impact them if they are acknowledged and valued as individuals. This is a time for really engaging your people, not for being distant. It is important to show care for those who are being retrenched: support them fully rather than providing minimum compensation and services. These things matter to those who stay as much as those who are leaving.
  1. Identify areas for growth 
Even as cost cutting continues as a priority, there will be opportunities for growth – but the growth may be in new or unexpected areas. These may include client retention, customer satisfaction, staff engagement, a stronger employment brand or new services which leverage off existing capabilities. Growth may also be in new skills via in-house initiatives. As you reduce overall salary costs, balance the ledger by investing in those who remain.
  1. Consider your own example 

All too often, hard decisions are implemented in unnecessarily tough ways, as leaders avoid difficult conversations or grapple with how to convey messages. It should be no surprise that Impersonal approaches such as email or video from head office are the least effective. Get face to face, or coach others in being present and consultative in leading change. Even after decisions are advised, and the long grind of implementation follows, be present, supportive and respectful. And start “growth initiatives” (as mentioned above) as soon as possible. Resilience and good humour are infectious – so exemplify this in your behavior and acknowledge it in your colleagues.

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Followers - who usually watch the leader’s moves closely anyway - become hyper-focused on every little move that their superiors make when they are worried about what tough financial times will mean for their fates. An article in McKinsey Quarterly recounts how an executive in a leadership program at Stanford, for example, described an assistant in his office who stopped a senior executive in the hall to ask him, “When are the layoffs coming?” This executive was dumbfounded by the question because, though layoffs were in the works, this was a well-guarded secret. After the executive confessed that job cuts were likely to happen, he asked how she knew. She explained that he had been unable to look anyone in the eye all day and instead looked down at his shoes when he spoke to others. She further said it was well known that when this boss was “having an interesting shoes day,” it meant that bad news was on the way.1

Leaders can reassure employees through the hundreds of little things that they say and do when dealing with their teams - offering praise and reassurance, admitting their own mistakes, and gently but firmly calling out people who fuel fear, cynicism, and hostility. Being a skilled leader requires attention to these tiny details.

  1. Provide coaching to your line leaders
The positive or negative feelings most people experience at work are driven much more by their immediate working relationships than by wider corporate identity and values or corporate imperatives around shareholder returns. Coach your immediate supervisors to provide the skills they need for sensitive, effective leadership of change.

We once worked with one retrenched executive who at the time the news was broken became furious at the way the process was handled. He did not question the decision and could see the logic for it. But his manager had sat him down and read out word for word a long, legalistic statement – with no eye contact or compassion – following the advice of in-house legal counsel. This incident is not uncommon.

  1. Invest in some fun for your teams

Give just a little back as you achieve cost reduction targets. For example, put 10% of funds saved back into staff development and engagement initiatives. If a cost reduction target of 10% is achieved, put 10% of this saving (which is only 1% of the total original cost!) back into individual growth investments.

  1. Pay attention to the messages your staff are hearing

This is a good time for not only being visible and accessible, but also for some quality listening.

Communication with employees during this time is essential. Ask people at all levels what they are hearing – what are the messages they are receiving. They may be quite different from those you think you have sent out.

  1. Don't forget about your own needs as well

Whilst there is a place for setting an example in your own practices, and rolling up your own sleeves to do the harder things, keep an eye on your own well-being and health. Short breaks with loved ones and careful attention to stress levels is important.

1Dean. D. (September 2009) A CEO’s guide to reenergizing the senior team, McKinsey Quarterly.

Now we would like to hear your thoughts and experiences! What has worked for you when boosting enthusiasm during an organisational change? Have you had a manager who kept up morale in your team? What was the impact of this throughout a restructure?

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Tags: Organisational Change Agility, Career Transition

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