Keeping chins up during crises should start well before trouble sets in
If you’ve waited until your organizations is going through hard times to begin building or reinforcing morale, you’ve likely missed the critical time window to do so.
In today’s volatile environment, organizational leaders are increasingly called upon to deal with budget cutbacks, downsizing, public relations crises and other pressing challenges. Executives who have successfully navigated through such difficult circumstances say the time to “rally the troops” must start long before serious problems arise.
Michael Beer, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of High Commitment, High Performance: How to Build a Resilient Organization for Sustained Advantage, says leaders of high performing organizations view their employees differently than other leaders. “They see them as an asset, and care about them as people and work hard to frame the mission of the firm in a way that creates meaning. Consequently they manage downturns very differently.”
These leaders don’t fixate on short-term results. Instead, they map out a path early on and then consistently guide the efforts of all employees using three fundamental disciplines: honest communication, respect, and a personal commitment to doing what they say.
Creating and effectively communicating a compelling vision is a vital leadership role according to Carol Stephenson, dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University. In a speech she delivered ‑— Leadership in Transformational Times: The Critical Role of Communications, Values, and Vision — She compared effective leadership to a compass in a storm. The best leaders point the way through change with a vision that inspires all employees.
Simone Hughes, chief marketing officer of Field Law, spent two decades working for Canadian banks while the financial services sector struggled through a transformation from a stable service culture into a competitive, globalized, technology-driven sales culture. At one bank undergoing rapid transformation, the executive team created an uplifting vision of the future and then engaged all staff in conversations that contextualized the current situation and painted a clear picture of what it would take for the company to survive and thrive. Employees felt empowered by this approach.
This is why successful leaders also reinforce values in their communications. “Shared values provide direction during times of uncertainty, comfort during periods of difficult change, and inspiration in the face of opportunity,” says Ms. Stephenson.
Dom Caruso, president and chief operating officer of advertising agency Leo Burnett Canada, underscores the importance of communicating — and listening more — during difficult times. His company conducts a comprehensive annual survey to learn what’s on employees’ minds. A few times during the year management also holds town hall meetings to share successes and challenges and to address these and other priority issues.
In fact, while communicating through technology is increasingly common, for these leaders it never replaces face-to-face communication. They find that making an effort to connect personally with employees, particularly when times are difficult, reduces misunderstandings and builds trust.
Laurene Cihosky, who was a senior vice-president of a Crown corporation during a recessionary restructuring, says it’s important to remember that when significant change is happening, “don’t hide; staff want lots of dialogue, honesty and as much information as possible.”
Dom Caruso makes the point that securing employees’ commitment also requires walking the talk. “People need to know there is no gap between what management says is important and what actually happens.” Leaders’ actions are expected to be consistent with their communications, addressing adverse circumstances in a way that respects the organization’s vision and values.
Respect is the third discipline. When executives are guiding employees through major transitions, they shouldn’t assume what they want to do is the only way to do something. They should ask for input and respect the opinions they receive, while acknowledging results and expressing gratitude. Mr. Caruso affirms that leaders must recognize the impact of their tough decisions and show appreciation to people for their efforts and sacrifices.
Simone Hughes believes that keeping an enterprise strong through painful transitions ultimately comes down to simple human dignity. “Tough times will always exist and bad things will happen to good people — it’s how we are treated going through them that will make or break an organization.”
Leaders who want to sustain morale and performance might want to keep these suggestions in mind. Short-term fixes are not effective. What does work is consistency over the long haul. This involves communicating the vision and values and what is expected of everyone, respecting employees’ contributions, and doing what you say you are going to do until the mission is accomplished.
Barbara Morris, president of Elevate Organizations, is a leadership development specialist and coach who helps individuals and organizational teams optimize potential and achieve goals.