A few years ago, I was part of an organization that was successfully striding toward accomplishing our strategic goals when unexpected external forces imposed a drastic direction change. Our strategic goals, operational efforts, and daily routines devolved into absolute chaos in only a few short, chaotic days.
This was a drastic change, thorough disruption, and pervasive uncertainty – and this is when our leaders went to work.
First Things First
Our senior leaders immediately recognized that adapting how they communicated with and provided direction to the organization was necessary. They realized that their people would need more from them during this period: more guidance, more direction, more reassurance, more access, and more communication. Their methodology was simple. Overcommunicate everything.
Constantly Reiterate Priorities (and it’s okay if they change)
Within organizations, people create relationships, routines, and methods for accomplishing tasks supporting higher-order objectives. When those higher-order objectives are no longer defined, people are unsure how to translate action into productive work. Our leaders quickly defined organizational priorities for us to focus our efforts on. They did not have all the information they needed, but they clarified logical next steps and then reiterated those priorities constantly. As new information became available, they updated the priorities and then repeated those priorities constantly. After a few days, we all understood that if we knew the current priorities, we could make decisions rapidly to drive the organization forward.
Explain the Why
“Because I said so!” is not a great leadership methodology even in the most stable of times, and it is particularly harmful during periods of change, disruption, and uncertainty. Communicating the “why” is about helping individuals understand the connection between the task they need to complete and how it impacts the organization. Our leaders helped us understand the bigger picture the same way they understood it, which enabled us to make more accurate decisions because we could envision the downstream effects of our work.
Be Visible and Approachable
During this time, one of our leaders abandoned the relative sanctuary of their office, set up a temporary workspace in the middle of the team, and encouraged us to share questions, ideas, and frustrations. Initially, this seemed like an incredibly brave and possibly very foolish endeavor. We had questions. We had ideas. We were also often frustrated, sometimes excited, and occasionally rather irritated. We shared all of that (and much more). By being visible and approachable, our leader gained a better understanding of what we considered challenges and what we began to realize as opportunities. Our leader shared new information with us as it became available, readily answered questions, and provided guidance constantly. We learned more quickly, adapted more quickly, and built new routines.
Change, disruption, and uncertainty impact people differently. Some people may react with excitement as they envision new opportunities, while others may respond with fear and confusion as their established routines are rendered ineffective. Leaders who display empathy are much more likely to communicate effectively with their people, reduce fears, and encourage excitement. Sometimes, just knowing that a leader feels the same way you do about a situation can be all you need to stay focused on the task at hand and support the organization through difficult times.
Challenge: As a leader, when your organization enters a period of change, disruption, or uncertainty, how will you react? What can only you do as a leader for your organization? How will you get to work?
Preparing yourself and your team for the inevitability of change is a development opportunity that shouldn’t be overlooked. As always, if you’d ever like a pair of outside eyes with decades of experience leading through disruptive environments, our team is happy to help.