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Leading Through Uncertainty: maintaining staff engagement and customer focus

Leading Through Uncertainty: maintaining staff engagement and customer focus

A select few words accurately describe business life over the past 6 months.  Top of the list for many has to be the word “uncertainty.” Since the lockdown in March, leaders and decision-makers have faced tough choices regarding pay, staffing priorities, customer needs and propositions, and the future of their business, all while having no indication of what may lie ahead.

As we enter October 2020 and the seventh month of restrictions, there is no clear path forward for UK businesses. The Government’s existing furlough scheme ends and even with alternative schemes in place, it is likely that many more employers will have to make difficult staffing cuts, downsize their operations, or close completely in coming months.

No executive chooses to deal with such tough choices such as these, but it comes with the territory of managing and leading teams, and/or owning a business. What counts, is the way that you approach these situations, not just for the future of achieving business goals, but also for your people. During tumultuous times, management and senior executives are looked to, to be the stabilising force. It’s essential that they lead with confidence, assurance, high emotional intelligence and compassion. When this is lacking, morale and retention issues soon surface.

Battling Blowback

Making staffing cutbacks is one of the most challenging tasks for a leader. However you choose to carry out this duty will ultimately serve as one of the greatest testaments to your leadership abilities, and will shape how the rest of the organisation views you moving forward.

Delivering negative news with a cool and detached demeanour may feel like a professional and clean approach, but it can create the impression with both departing and remaining staff that you are callous with no concern for staff feelings and no appreciation for the time they invested in the organisation. Alternatively, displaying guilt, sadness, or remorse may ease the blow for departing staff, but remaining team members might then question your confidence in the future of the company, and fear for their own jobs.

It is a fine line for any business leader to walk. While supporting organisations as they develop their change management strategies, our team have found the most successful programmes are those where leaders spend as much time on their exit strategies as they do on their hiring and induction strategies. Providing support to the staff that your organisation needs to let go of due to redundancy and treating them empathetically is paramount, as is keeping a level head and optimistic outlook to inspire remaining staff’s confidence in the future of the organisation. Otherwise, you risk disengagement, lower productivity and reduced customer focus as remaining staff may no longer feel motivated to go the extra mile for a leader or organisation that they do not feel values staff or their efforts. Worst case scenario, you may even create retention issues, as employees may lose faith and seek out a leader and organisation they feel they can better rely on.

Focusing Your Attention

As a leader, you face constant scrutiny. Every decision and every tough conversation you have has the potential to impact your overall productivity and trust in both you and the organisation. Focusing your attention on the right priorities during times of difficulty and uncertainty can help you to maintain rapport and skilfully chart a stable path forward.

When planning and conducting those difficult termination discussions, remember that those individuals who may leave your organisations may still be future stakeholders – be that of your product, service or brand. For those organistions who are financially able to, providing support services to help individuals shape a new career trajectory and deal with the uncertainty that change brings will go a long way in leaving a positive feeling on exit. Equally, don’t forgot those staff who remain. These individuals will be the future of your business. This should remain front of mind throughout the entirety of the decision-making, planning and execution processes.

Your skills as a leader will play a key role here. Adaptability, empathy and compassion are three of the most important traits for a leader to have in times of difficulty. The choices you make affect real lives, and that should not be taken lightly. These two attributes will be of paramount importance for all interactions or communications regarding departing staff.

Once termination discussions have taken over, other skills will need to take over. Strong communication skills will be absolutely essential for clearly expressing your plans, goals and strategy for the business moving forward. Confidence and assurance are also key. If you seem secure in the plans for the future, it will provide your staff with valuable peace of mind. Positivity and optimism help to support this and can even help inspire motivation, creativity or deepen attachment to the organisation.

One final essential skill here will be your ability to unite your organisation. Your remaining staff have just lost teammates, colleagues, and even friends. It is likely that the company’s culture will feel fragmented. Be genuine and sincere in all of your conversations and in any speeches or written communication. Be open and honest with your staff. Acknowledge the hardships but do not dwell on negativity. Provide clear directives and outline specific plans or goals. Establish a dialogue with your staff and demonstrate a willingness to listen to any concerns. It is your duty as a leader to reassure your remaining staff that good times will eventually return, and the organisation will grow stronger from these challenging times.

Growing Together

Another great way to focus your attention on your remaining staff while also benefitting the business is to reskill or upskill your people. Regular reskilling and upskilling is now business critical given the pace of change.  There is some debate about whether this should be the responsibility of the employer or the individual employees, and our stance is that the responsibility belongs to both.

An employer who invests in their employees creates loyalty, builds confidence and increases oragnisational competitiveness. Providing training or educational opportunities shows a clear dedication to professional development. In fact, these opportunities help minimise staff turnover in both the short and long term. Employees feel valued and invested in the organisation for the long haul, while employers reap the benefits of having a highly-skilled workforce to help carry out their roles.

Alternatively, employees should be encouraged to seek their own individual learning opportunities and pursue their own interests. This allows more freedom to explore areas that may not be directly related to their role, but might provide other value. Lifelong learning is incredibly beneficial and can provide the individual with many benefits to enhance their career professionalism and role impact.

No leader wants to find themselves in the position of having to make difficult staffing choices in the face of an uncertain future, but given the unpredictability of this pandemic it is reasonable to assume that many may have to do just that in the coming months. In these situations, it is important to stay focused on the future and the team you will have by your side moving forward.

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