Nowadays, Leadership Means Being More Human

written by Kerry Bunker

As the economic crisis strikes ever deeper, executives, managers and employees everywhere face wrenching decisions. Of course, immense business skill and personal resolve are required to reduce costs, implement complex changes and direct scaled-back business operations. But that is only half the story.

In turbulent times, we need our leaders to be more human than ever too.

Confronted by change, particularly layoffs and restructuring, people go through times that are rarely easy. Uncertainty at work triggers all kinds of behavioral and emotional reactions. Instead of being loyal, productive and enthusiastic, employees grow insecure, fearful and skeptical–and rightly so. Seismic shifts of the magnitude we’re experiencing today test the resiliency of everyone in an organization.

The depth of this economic crisis is unparalleled in our lifetimes, but we can draw on lessons from similar, if less pervasive, episodes in the past. We need to remember them.

I first experienced how employees and organizations struggle to recover from traumatic change when I was working at AT&T in the 1970s and 1980s. I was an organizational psychologist studying stress when the deregulation and break-up of the telecom industry led to thousands of job losses. “Downsizing” emerged as the remedy of choice. I remember vividly the futile attempts executives made to dispose of all feelings of loss and grief in a one-day program–so that we could move on to the real work, as we saw it, of reshaping the business and generating new sources of revenue. Alas, gathering people together and imploring them to grieve on command simply didn’t work. It still won’t.

Since then, I’ve spent a significant portion of my career helping leaders guide their organizations through painful, dramatic change–and survive with something left that is worth having. Here’s a short version of what I tell leaders now:

Managers today have more or less mastered the structural side of leading change. They can understand the practical situation, make the case for change and take action. Reorganizing, restructuring and pushing for leaner organizations has all been institutionalized in our business models. Yet for all our operational savvy, 75% of change initiatives fail–even in the best of times–and in today’s tough times, successful change is harder than ever.

The companies that emerge from the crisis with a strong balance sheet and a functioning, high-value talent pool will be the ones with leaders who do something more. They deal effectively with both the structural side of leading change and the human dynamic too. They keep a focus on maintaining and building trust.

This is not a time to take your talented people for granted. Those who remain on the payroll now see few external options. They are happy to still have jobs. But a captive audience is always vigilant. They are well aware of how they and their co-workers are being treated.

Of course, tending to the human side of change does not prevent plant closings, layoffs or tough work realities. But when you balance the structural, technical aspects of managing change with attention to the personal side of transition, you become a more credible and trustworthy leader. To strengthen your ability to lead your people as you run the business, focus on these six areas:

–Manage the change, but lead the transition. Of course you need to communicate the business reasons for change and the specific actions you have to take to right the ship. But you also need to acknowledge that people are experiencing loss and grief. If you ignore the personal and psychological elements of the process, you will appear callous, arrogant or disconnected. The ability to cope with the emotional fallout of change is especially important if you have been or will be reducing your workforce.

–Balance the drive to keep things moving with the need to give people time to catch up. People react in different ways to change and adapt at various paces. Be patient, over-communicate, coach people who are struggling and understand that performance may initially lag. But don’t go to extremes–this is not an excuse to be indulgent of chronically poor performers and complainers.

–Know when to empathize and when to be tough. Effective leaders know to be tough and assertive in terms of goals, accountability, focus and perseverance. However, they are also empathetic. Listen with an open mind and without judging. Tell people–repeatedly–that you value them, and acknowledge the emotional impact of seeing colleagues and friends escorted out the door.

–Balance realism and optimism. Nobody wants to be around a boss who radiates gloom and doom 24/7. But don’t overdo the optimism, either. Tell people the truth, acknowledge mistakes and be clear about your situation and prospects for the future. You can be resolute and hopeful without sugarcoating the challenge.

–Trust yourself, and trust others. Self-reliance, confidence and willingness to do the hard work are essential. But you also need to involve others in efforts to change and maintain the business. You cannot fix the company or implement a new process or come up with a new strategy all on your own. You need the support of peers and subordinates, not only to get the work done but also as fellow travelers on a challenging journey.

–Know your strengths, and try new things. Draw on your personal and organizational strengths and skills, and confidently apply them to new situations and circumstances. But keep in mind that your old strategies and solutions may not work today. Lead the way with a willingness to learn and try new things–even when the process is difficult or painful.

Leadership isn’t about finding the right business model or crafting the ultimate set of competencies. It’s about being honest, authentic and human, even–and especially–in turbulent times.

HRDQ-U and Kerry Bunker hosteda free webinar you can Watch here

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