At a time of unexpected change, leaders must contain high anxiety
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After the earthquake come the aftershocks. Unexpected and divisive events, such as Brexit and last week’s US elections, can paralyse a workforce. It is the job of leaders not to be thrown into confusion by surprises. The rest of the organisation is watching (as are trade unions, if they take Michael Skapinker’s advice). Mood swings in a leadership team — either up or down — are a bad idea.
At the same time, withdrawing and being emotionally distant does not help a workforce facing a period of uncertainty either. Insecurity will distract people, whether they support or disapprove of the event that brought it about. It can prevent them from functioning normally and lead to such deep divisions that one side feels unwelcome — or even unsafe — at work. In liberal San Francisco it may be those who voted for Donald Trump who feel outsiders, while in Grundy, located in the coalfields of the Appalachian mountains, it is more likely to be supporters of Hillary Clinton. Leaders need to serve all their employees, particularly the most vulnerable, regardless of their politics.
Even when there is little doubt that events have taken a turn for the worse, leaders can find communicating openly with their employees difficult. The 2008 financial crisis was one such moment. In the UK, the John Lewis department store chain made redundancies on an unprecedented scale. “We found out how hard it is for an organisation to be really honest with its people,” Andy Street, the managing director at the time, admitted.
In anxious times bosses need to provide “containment”: an environment in which employees feel safe to get on with their work.
“This is not about sugar-coating the truth,” says Catherine Sandler of Sandler Consulting, a London-based executive coaching firm. “It does mean being honest and showing empathy.”
Bosses who lack maturity and self-awareness are likely to react in three different ways. They “fight” (being combative and blaming others), respond through “flight” (avoiding conflict and difficult decisions) or “freeze” (disengaging emotionally).
The shock of truly dramatic news is sometimes likened to bereavement. The Kübler-Ross cycle describes the range of emotional responses people can experience — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — although the process is not a linear or sequential one, and feelings may ebb and flow.
“That cycle is really about loss,” Ms Sandler says, “loss of a sense of safety”. In the context of work this might also include loss of confidence in leaders’ abilities and their values.
Our habits and behaviour are tested by events. When life-altering news hits, we are all found out. The question is: how well do we understand our own emotional and psychological make-up? How will we respond when the pressure is on? Any chief executive or commander-in-chief needs to have a good answer to that one.
The writer is director of the High Pay Centre, which tracks executive pay