Research & Thought Leadership

How to sustain employees and employee performance during turbulent times

Dr Ilze Lansdell-Zandvoort

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In my previous blog article How to Retain Talent During Turbulent Times, I provided 5 key recommendations to retain talent. Here I offer some suggestions to help protect and sustain employees and their performance during times of crisis. The insights are gained from employees who often ask themselves “Is this a place I can survive in?” when times are tough.

Although there were many lessons for leaders to learn from employee experiences, I have selected my top ten to share here. These recommendations cannot be ranked in order of importance. How you practice these behaviors will be determined by the context and the people involved. Therefore, I had created a mnemonic to aid recall. I hope ‘AIR CASTLES’ offers a tenuous enough link to change for some of these recommendations to stick.

Appreciate: Make your employees feel valued by recognizing and appreciating their contributions, experience, and efforts. This will contribute to their sense of self-worth and self-esteem both of which can sustain them in difficult times.

Involve: Invite involvement, diversity, and even challenge by creating an inclusive culture. Create processes that support collaboration and co-creation. Don’t allow people to feel like mere victims of the change or at the mercy of the storm. Give them a sense of control by imparting some level of ownership and autonomy to them.

Role-model: Gandhi put it best: “Be the change you want to see”. Walk the talk and live the values needed to make the change you need successful. It might also mean that you need to show vulnerability, reflexivity, courage, and agility amongst other behaviors associated with transitions.

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Connect: When people feel unsafe, unsettled, or overwhelmed, you can help them by reaching out and establishing a human connection. Look out for signs that your employees may be drowning. Some will cling to you whilst others may silently disappear below the surface as they retreat. Make sure every team member has something to connect to or with at work.

Acknowledge issues: No one and nothing is perfect. During turbulent times there will be decisions, processes, and interactions that do not go according to plan. Acknowledge when this happens. Apologize if it is needed. Let go of unhelpful mindsets, behaviors, or processes and move on to embrace something that more suitable to the context.

Share: Share insights, information, share resources, share your time and attention. The purpose of sharing is to provide clarity, direction, and context. It also demonstrates caring and consideration. You can also share on an emotional level. We all panic at times. Sharing your anxieties or fears may make you more real and approachable. However, creating a sense of panic is not helpful. If you are feeling out of your depth emotionally, share confidentially with someone who can help ground you first. Also, do not share gossip or spread rumors. Thumper, in Bambi, said this best: “If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say nothing at all”.

Talk: Make time to talk to your employees about what is going on. Talk about what matters to them. Create a safe environment where they can trust you to be open. Be transparent when you talk, even if it means telling them there are things you cannot share.

Listen: Make sure you check in with everyone in your team or organization. Create an inclusive process that allows you to hear from everyone, taking care not to privilege certain voices. Ensure that everyone feels heard or if this is not feasible – be clear why you are not listening in this instance. Listen also for silence. When no one is speaking up or when there are no dissenting voices, ask yourself why this is? Maybe they are too scared, too cynical, or too disengaged – none of which bodes well for the survival of the organization.

Empathize: Put yourself in the shoes of others and demonstrate care in all you do. We experience change in different ways and our response to change is contextual. Take care not to judge others based on your own experience of the change. Instead, seek to explore, respect, and understand perplexing responses to change, as you help others survive.

Support: Seek to support, sustain, and protect others, particularly those more vulnerable than you. Don’t be fooled by proclamations of ‘I’m fine’ when you suspect they may be in trouble. You may have to step in and create boundaries for those who cannot do it for themselves. Or give them permission to say ‘No more. I am drowning’. It is also a leader’s responsibility to fix things that are broken in the wider system. You may need to support your team by removing barriers, fighting their battles, streamlining processes, or getting them more help.

Once again, these recommendations are not rocket science. Managing change from the viewpoint of those living through the change is key to helping employees survive difficult times.

Dr. Ilze Lansdell-Zandvoort is a Professor of Management and Leadership at Hult International Business School where she helps leaders explore practical recommendations for those leading change in our immersive experience on the Pioneering Culture Transformation with Communication Program.

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