Managing With Sensitivity

Managing and leading during tough times can be very difficult (and, let’s face it — at times, downright awful).

During these hard times, the “heart” in leadership matters greatly.

Emotions are running high; fear, anxiety and anger are a given with layoffs. Rumors are flying. Telling an employee he or she no longer has a job is gut-wrenching — no matter the reason or circumstances.

Though there is no perfect way or words to use, there are ways to make this daunting task both intentional and considerate. Here are a few:

Communicate: Proactive, consistent and genuine communication during tough times and potential layoffs is imperative — do it early, often and with candor.

Avoid sugarcoating the truth. Whenever possible deliver difficult messages in person.

Prepare for a difficult conversation: Choose a location that offers privacy and avoid distractions (no cell phones, PDAs or computer screens).

Be prepared to answer questions such as:

  • Who made the decision and how was it made?
  • Who else will be let go?
  • What are my options at this point (i.e., are there other jobs or outplacement resources available)?

Share with those being laid off how much you have appreciated working with them and acknowledge them for their contributions. Offer positive suggestions for moving forward, including detailing outplacement resources available to them.

Be empathetic: Deliver the message calmly with compassion and sensitivity. Be straightforward and clear while being sensitive to the employee’s emotions and reactions.

Acknowledge the obvious — that this is difficult news to hear and give. Convey empathy around the employee’s feelings and situation.

If the employee loses control of his or her emotions during the meeting, suggest a break, offer him or her the rest of the day off or see if you can call someone to come pick him or her up. Use self-soothing strategies (taking deep breaths can help) to calm yourself.

Provide emotionally intelligent leadership for the “survivors”: Don’t be emotionally tone deaf to the anguish or stress of your people.

Layoffs, or downsizing, has a dramatic impact throughout the organization. It’s easy to forget that “survivors” are affected as well. They are saying goodbye to friends and trusted colleagues whom they respect and care about and often have feelings of guilt or anxiety about their futures. Losing staff typically also means big changes in how survivors will do their work.

Bring your team together to talk about how they feel (be respectful to those who may not want to talk about it) and be accessible for people to come to you about their concerns. Be sensitive and allow them time, space and support they need to heal.

Expect productivity to go down for a while: Be conscientious around setting reasonable expectations and pace in light of the changes made.

Refocus resources and redefine priorities — and where possible streamline processes and work flow. The survivors will be justifiably concerned about a) how much work there is to do, b) are they up to new tasks they may need to absorb and c) will they have the time/energy to complete them. Reclarify expectations moving forward and your commitment to supporting their efforts moving ahead.

Focus on rebuilding trust: Trust has been lost during a layoff — count on it. As a leader, you will need to put extra emphasis on building it back up again.

Go back to basics: Reconfirm the vision and core values as a constant that has not changed. Be a truth teller and an adult — don’t ignore reality nor make promises you can’t keep. Be visible and available (don’t hide out in your office!) and understand that every behavior you do and words that you say will be scrutinized.

People in extreme situations need leadership and confidence more than ever. They look to their leaders for cues about how they should be responding. True leaders will differentiate from the pretenders during difficult circumstances — they will create safety and demonstrate that they are calm, sensitive and affirming with others even under great stress.

Practice extreme self-care: Managing the pain of others will take a toll on you — both emotionally and physically.

It is during tough times that your people need you the most and you will be no good to them if you are depleted. Find extra support.  As an executive coach, I can help you so you don’t have to “go it alone” (360 682 5807).  I Skype with clients anywhere in the world.

 

Leading and Layoffs

Many leaders are forced to make difficult decisions that negatively affect people they care about. No one likes to lay people off or cut back resources, creating more work and stress. All of this comes at a great emotional cost.

It’s often said that true leaders emerge during times of crisis. Company leaders have a lot riding on how they respond. These days all eyes are on them. Everything they do and say is scrutinized. Workers are paying attention to every nuance trying to figure out “what’s really going on.”

Unfortunately, few company leaders are actually communicating. A recent national survey showed that 71 percent of those surveyed felt that their company’s leadership should be communicating more about current economic problems, and 54 percent have not heard from company leaders at all on the impact of the financial crisis on their company.

American workers are naturally feeling unsure and anxious during this economic downturn. We look to our workplace leaders for cues about how we should be responding. Silence is a response — but not an effective one.

What can leaders do?

  • Communicate frequently with the 3 C’s: clearly, credibly and candidly. During a crisis, communication is more important than ever. Ambiguity and uncertainty equate to stress. If you go silent, people will make up their own stories about what’s really going on with you and the company. Rumors often generate negativity and fan the flames of fear and anxiety.
  • Keep connected. Manage by walking around. You can’t afford during times like these not to know what’s really going on. Be diligent in seeking out information, even the bad news. It’s a mistake during a crisis to hide out in your office with the door closed. Nervous followers need comfort and reassurance from their leaders. Be visible and keep checking in with all levels of staff to see how people are doing.
  • Ask yourself, “What kind of emotional wake do I want to leave behind me today?” The emotions of a leader are highly contagious, so work hard to manage your own anxiety. No one will affect the overall workplace mood and morale more than a senior leader. Be mindful that any negative comments or tone will carry impact. If you show up like a cat on a hot tin roof, your anxiety will spread like a wildfire. Manage your own anxiety by developing a “self-soothing strategy” you can rely on. Find someone you can vent to safely, such as a trusted outside adviser or coach who also can offer an objective perspective.
  • Pay attention to task and people; be alert to their emotions. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking all is well or that your people will simply need to “deal with it.” Develop a proactive plan to recognize, identify and deal with current challenges and emotions in the workplace. Set time aside in team meetings to allow people to vent and talk about their anxieties and challenges. Listen and acknowledge what you hear them saying.
  • Be the anchor in the storm; display calm confidence and optimism. Model what you want from your team. This is your golden opportunity to truly lead by example and live your values.
  • Keep your team focused. Identify the single most important priority goal that everyone needs to commit to in order to weather the storm. Make sure everyone understands it and is clear what their part will be — their action item(s) in helping the team achieve it. Let them know there will be no tolerance for the “it’s not my job” syndrome for this goal! Create a measurable scoreboard for the goal, review it at every team meeting and recognize/celebrate critical milestones.
  • Engage hearts and minds (particularly your top performers’) to increase productivity. Facilitate a session to get all hands on deck. Bring the team or company together to brainstorm creative solutions for the game plan. Focus on core strengths and values, company vision and how to keep customer confidence high.
  • Stay the course. Reinforce the plan with follow-up, recognition, redefining expectations and adequate resource support for weathering the storm. Retaining your top talent during slow growth will be challenging — they get restless. Work to keep them engaged, well supported and rewarded. On that note, everyone’s extra effort should be noted and recognized.