Business writing,  Humanising business,  Organisational change

The Tough Question

Need my big girl boots for this one …

In the few weeks since the publication of my book, I have been asked two questions in particular over and over again– a fun one, and a tough one. The fun question is about why I wrote the book in the first place; perhaps that’s an article for another day. The tough one is the one I particularly want to tackle now, and the answer – or at least an attempt at one – is in a sense a companion to last week ‘s piece about how to keep people engaged in times of uncertainty.

The tough question is, in a nutshell, 

“Okay, all this stuff about authentic leadership and purpose and stories, yadda yadda, is all very well, but what if the future is grim? What if the inevitable result of the change we are undertaking is job losses?”

This is a good and important question, and getting to an answer will test the mettle of any organisation and its leaders. 

In getting to an answer that is right for your particular organisation in your particular context, here are three things to consider:

The first consideration is what is the ‘right’ thing to do– by which I mean, what is best for the organisation and best for individuals, taken in the round. It is easy – perhaps even oddly comforting – to conclude there is an inevitable dichotomy here; that the interests of the organisation and the interests of people are invariably in conflict. This absolves us of a degree of responsibility – someone has to get hurt, it’s just a matter of who, and how much. 

But we need to think more deeply. If we are truly thinking in terms of the ultimate purpose of our organisation, and in terms of the long term sustainability and flourishing of both our organisation and the human beings within it, we need to think less transactionally and find an approach which delivers the best possible results for everyone. 

Now, of course there may very well be tough decisions to be made in relation to particular individuals. There may be compromises, changes in role, and there may be job losses. These decisions are hard. Hardest by far, of course, for those directly impacted by the uncertainty and then by the outcome – but hard, too, for those involved in the decision-making, and for those who are tasked with keeping the show on the road day-to-day and planning a positive future while simultaneously managing a restructuring process with all the uncertainty and emotion that brings. 

Leaders can much better lead authentically and wholeheartedly through the pain and uncertainty if they have wrestled with the issues, and have emerged with a clear sense of the right approach, and a clear sense of purpose. 

The second consideration is timeframe and pace. There is a world of difference between a medium-long term direction of travel and an impending sure-fire decision point. 

If the issue is that from your leader’s vantage point, with your wide lens, you can see that over the coming months or years the direction you’re taking and prevailing market conditions may lead to a change or reduction in roles, then I think I largely stand by the model I shared in the last article – that is, crack on, tell your stories, talk about purpose, and empower and inspire people to do their best work. In due course, you may need to revisit your approach and be more explicit about impending changes, but there’s a long and twisty path between here and there, and meanwhile your people are building their expertise and doing meaningful work.

But if the issue is that you know, now, for a fact, that there is action to be taken, pretty much right away, then my advice is don’t delay. At times of great change, two of the great arch-enemies are the doubt and uncertainty that creep in to any hiatus. Moving fast closes those gaps, and helps to maintain trust, demonstrate integrity of words and actions, and create confidence and momentum. More pragmatically, there is a limit in any event to how much inspiring and empowering is possible if there’s an immediate threat hanging over everyone’s head. People aren’t daft. 

The third consideration is how to conduct any restructuring in the most courageous and compassionate way possible. Again, it can be useful to think about the neuroscience here. This is an example par excellence of change-as-threat. People are afraid and in pain – remember that the brain makes no distinction between the physical and the emotional; this is tiger territory. Now is not the time for logic and intellectual argument – nobody’s pre-frontal cortex is firing on all cylinders. We are in old, animal brain territory, and what people need is to find a way through the uncertainty with their status, their sense of autonomy, their relationships and their sense of fairness as intact as possible. It is our job, as leaders, to create the conditions within which that can happen.

This is messy human stuff. I have been involved in a number of redundancy programmes, performance management conversations and firings in the course of my career, and without fail, have lost a lot of sleep before the first conversations in every process. It is a weighty thing to play a part in deciding and then telling someone that their future is not with the organisation; that the next part of their story will be different to what they had thought, hoped, planned it would be. Participation in the process requires courage and compassion and a commitment to treat everyone with the utmost respect. More practically, everyone deserves a decent financial package and practical and emotional support to help them to conceive of, and then transition to, the next part of their story. They also deserve their leader’s gratitude for their participation in the story so far, and they need to be able to move on with dignity and hope.

None of this is easy for anyone, but this is what courageous leadership looks like.  In the words of Michael Rosen’s children’s classic, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’,

“Uh-oh! Mud. Thick, oozy mud. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ll have to go through it ….”