Leading people through change
August 30, 2014

These are trying times for us all, and none of us should underestimate the anxiety that exists, nor the stagnating inertia it creates. As I have said before, the companies that recognise this and help their employees get through the cycle as quickly as possible will be the ones who come through the current crisis fastest and strongest. In fact there is a statistic that is relevant here – that every month taken off the time it takes for a workforce to collectively get through the cycle is worth 20% of pre-crisis profits. Most companies will suffer a fall in profits in this downturn, but just imagine if you could lead your workforce through from Denial to Acceptance in 2 months not 6 – the prize is 80% of your pre-crisis profits.

Ah, I hear you ask, where did I find such a compelling statistic? Well, like 90% of all statistics, I made it up on the spot. But you take my point.

Consider the case of JCB this week. Orders have fallen 65% in the last month – a cataclysmic drop. Their response? To get their workforce together, explain the facts and ask them for their help. The result? A 100% backing from the (unionised) workforce for an across the board pay cut and a cancelling of the Christmas bonus. The company spokesman put forward to the media to discuss the move was one of the Union reps, who spoke almost proudly of the workforce’s decision. A revelation? Not at all – simply the mark of a company that is well led.

So what can you do? Well, here are some tips – I will list “Action you should take”, “Complaints you will get” and “Responses you should make” for each of the 5 steps.

Step 1 Shock and Denial (notice that people trying to pretend that this is not really happening or that things are not as bad as you are making out is perfectly natural at this stage)

Action you should take – give crystal clear communications and explanations of the facts; set new objectives and make it clear that these are non-negotiable; make unequivocal decisions and communicate them clearly. Complaints you will hear – that it’s not fair; that it’s not their fault so why should they suffer; that you have caused this so you should sort it out; that it cannot be as bad as you are making out. Responses you should make – keep repeating the facts and the new objectives you are setting; keep repeating the decisions you have made; you can apologise but do not over-do this as this will only detract from the decisions you are announcing and play up to the sense that you are to blame; talk to all employees face-to-face as they will at least respect the fact that you are not avoiding the discomfort.

Step 2 Anger (notice that people getting angry and frustrated is perfectly natural at this stage)

Action you should take – get people talking about how they feel about the decision, and what difficulties they will have in carrying out the new decisions; do not shirk from the anger they may vent at you personally and at the collective leadership. Complaints you will hear – that you have not thought through the decision; that you don’t understand the difficulties it will create, otherwise you would not have made the decision; that it’s always the employees who pay for management mistakes. Responses you should make – listen, listen and listen; acknowledge the emotions; empathise with the difficulties they will face in executing the decision; thank them for their passion and honesty; but never patronise

Step 3 Dialogue and Bargaining (notice that people wanting you to soften your decision or reduce the impact is natural at this stage)

Action you should take – ask the employees to list all the difficulties they can foresee and then ask them questions about how they will go about solving the problems they have identified; ask them what they need in order to move forward. Complaints you will hear – that you are asking them now when it’s too late – when you’ve already made your mind up; that it’s not their job to think up all the solutions to a problem that you have created; that you are asking them what they need and then denying them the resources they ask for. Responses you should make – keep them talking; focus on any and every positive response you get no matter how small; ask further questions when they come up with answers on what they need; reward any and every tiny forward movement

Step 4 Depression and Detachment (notice that people seeming disconnected and like they don’t care any more is natural at this stage)

Action you should take – give the employees time between meetings and discussion sessions; allow them not to interact or respond to your questions; show them it’s ok to be quiet; sit with them in their silence. Complaints you will hear – (well, not many obviously as they’re depressed!); that it’s all too difficult; that maybe they should give up; that they are not capable of achieving what you are asking of them. Responses you should make – gentle encouragement; acceptance of their emotions; belief in their abilities; generation of team spirit

Step 5 Acceptance (notice that people becoming more positive and taking initiative is natural at this stage)

Action you should take – insist upon accountability; refresh performance management systems; get back to running ‘business as usual’. Complaints you will hear – the normal ones you always used to hear. Responses you should make – praise and recognition; renewed commitment to openess and honesty about performance; visible signs of investment in the future, however small

Left to their own devices, a workforce might take months if not some years to come through this cycle, since the lack of appropriate leadership simply reinforces to the employees that they might be better off fighting the company. It goes without saying that superb leadership and conscious references to the cycle by leaders in their daily strategy evaluations will bring a dramatic speeding up – potentially to a period of just afew short weeks, if not DAYS. The really good news however is that even clumsy attempts by leaders to recognise the cycle and to lead in some of the ways mentioned above can work wonders, because actually all employees really want is to work for leaders who care. If you REALLY care about your employees then you will be prepared to do the work that is required above. It’s not comfortable. It takes thought, planning, attention and care. You will feel like you are taking 3 steps forward and 2 steps back. You will feel rejected and hurt when people seemingly go back a stage. But this is where the cycle can really help us, because it makes it clear for us that, just at the point where we feel like things are regressing, they are in fact moving forward. It’s frustrating when employees want to have an argument with you over the details, when you have told them over and over that there’s no room for negotiation. Yet they are bargaining with you, and thus they are half way through the cycle. It’s even more frustrating when they go quiet just at the point where they have started to get animated again and actually engage with you as a human being and not as some dog turf they stepped in. But grasshopper, do not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, since their detachment is the dark hour just before the dawn. And that is worth waiting for……..

About author

Dr Shailesh Thaker

Dr. Shailesh Thaker is a world-renowned management thinker and trainer on organizational behavior and development. He is the CLO of Knowledge Plus Inc., a highly reputed training firm based in Ahmedabad, India, helping organizations to achieve international benchmarks in management practices.

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