03 Sep Leadership Through Political Uncertainty
When the political landscape is in turmoil, as has been the case in Australia in the past weeks or even years, it’s easy to write it off as a schoolyard spat played out to gain individual advantage. However, many in your organisation may, either consciously or unconsciously, be feeling quite unsettled, which could impact productivity, culture and overall performance of the business.
So, how does this impact the performance of your business?
People typically dislike uncertainty of any kind. In a relatively stable country like Australia, many will dismiss the seemingly trivial political machinations going on around them. However, as this escalates and becomes more sustained, as it has of late, people start to question whether the fundamental elements of their lives will be impacted. Their concerns may be related to personal happiness and prosperity, such as their ability to pay for basic necessities such as utilities, education and groceries. Or, it could relate to their work environment, where job security, wage growth and job satisfaction are all significant considerations.
To avoid this uncertainty distracting employees from their primary tasks, here are a some suggestions on how leaders can address the potential ramifications on the business.
Recognise the uncertainty. Rather than just ignore it, address the source of uncertainty with empathy for how this may be impacting your staff both in real terms and emotionally. Offer your insights that may add some perspective to counter the potentially inflammatory media coverage. Address any issues that may have an impact on the performance of your business and how you plan to address it.
For example, at the centre of the current political turmoil in Australia has been the policy position around energy security and affordability for the future. This will have direct and immediate impact on all staff through the rapidly escalating power costs. For many, there will also be concern about the long-term sustainability of supply with a reliance on fossil fuels and a seeming lack of commitment to renewables by the government.
As a leader, just by recognising the concern of your staff will gain respect from your people.
You can also give them some assurance that you have strategies in place to address the increase in costs on the business to minimise the impact on performance and ensure job security. In some cases, where you or the company has the profile to influence public debate, you could share your position and how you plan to use your influence to help guide the direction of government policy. A recent example of this in Australia has been the same-sex marriage referendum, when many high-profile companies publicly stated their position in the debate.
This may also be a time to reinforce the availability of any Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that you may offer, in case the external pressures are becoming too much of a burden for some staff.
Communicate a vision. In times of external uncertainty, people seek confidence from their familiar surroundings. This is the time to give your staff confidence in a clear vision for the future of the business that includes success and prosperity for them. You can minimise distractions and improve attitudes if your team at least feel safe at work and know that there is a plan to cut through potential external concerns. It also ensures that your team focuses on the most important activities to achieve the vision, rather than be distracted amidst the noise around them.
Business leaders tend to delay capital investment in times of uncertainty, which slows growth and employment decisions. While this may be a viable commercial decision, it may also send the wrong message to employees and further fuels the underlying feeling of uncertainty. If tough decisions need to be made, ensure that they are clearly explained in a timely fashion and not just glossed over with meaningless corporate babble or covered up altogether. A void of information will be filled by the imagination, which can have a dangerous impact on the general attitude and performance.
When communicating the vision, ensure you recognise your successes and the contribution your staff have made to the success and the ongoing role they will play. It can be a huge positive boost to a mood that may be diminished through the negative environment around them.
Inspire confidence through leadership. In Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” he states: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …”. In times of uncertainty people look for leadership they can believe in. It’s important to be visible, which may be in the form of town hall meetings, or simply “walking the floor” to take a temperature check of the office and addressing any concerns that may be on peoples’ minds.
It’s also important to check your behaviour and that of your leadership team. In a world where politicians are behaving like school yard bullies, you need to be careful the same behaviours don’t exist in your business.
Rally the leadership team to role model the best behaviours and ensure that any unacceptable behaviour is addressed decisively.
If you identify an imbedded problem in leadership or culture, you may be wise to seek external help. An independent consultant may be able to add a perspective unable to be achieved by those inside the business whose views may be clouded.
Gain the confidence of your customers. Not only may your staff be feeling uncertainty, but your customers may be seeking assurances that you remain a reliable supplier. They may also be seeking to sure up their strategies for the future, which may include a consolidation or refreshing of suppliers. So, to keep in close communication with customers is important so that they know where you stand and how you are faring in this time of uncertainty. This can be done directly with the customer, or in some cases can be through more broad statements across your customer base through direct mail, website or social-media posts, or public statements through media releases and press conferences. Not only does this offer messages for your customers but it powerfully reinforces your internal staff communication and gives confidence that you are addressing the issues on the front foot.
I always find sporting coaches giving press conferences interesting in this respect. While they are communicating to their supporter base, they are also delivering powerful messages to their team which should reinforce what has been said privately.
So now is the time for our industry leaders to fill the leadership vacuum created by our political leaders, who seem more content in battling out their factional tiffs instead of running the country they were elected to lead. In many respects this is an opportunity to stand out in the maelstrom of craziness and garner the loyalty and productivity of your team that will endure the external noise around them.
This piece was written by Richard Ward from Composure, a leading consulting firm specialising in behaviour change and helping leaders and organisations perform through the power of people and culture.