Managing in Challenging Times

Being an effective manager is never easy at the best of times but the role is even more difficult when staff feel vulnerable and unsure.

Article as seen in November 2012 edition of Boom Magazine

Recent events in the Queensland economy have seen the size, nature and demands of the workforce change - and change quickly.

There have been job losses, redeployment, reduced casual hours and a sense of short and mid-term uncertainty even in businesses that are meeting or exceeding expectations.

The burden of ensuring that members of the workforce are productive and settled falls to managers who form the frontline and may themselves be feeling the burden of uncertainty.

It's the current circumstances where true management skill shines and when managers must be at their most skilful. They have to be productive and professional and encourage others to do the same. This requires clarity, communication and compassion.

The number one tip for managers is to be clear about what is happening in the workplace.

They need to allay understandable fears without giving false assurances to make people feel better or in an attempt to deflect the heat.

Managers may not always know what is around the corner or whether another storm is about to hit. But they can manage in the moment with the facts they do have coupled with an undertaking to provide further clarity when they are able to do so.

In challenging times people populate silence with the worst case scenario.

That's why effective managers communicate with their team using a range of different methods. The communication can be written or verbal, formal or informal.

Using one form of communication will not be sufficient to gets the facts across to all those who most need to hear them. It is vital to actually over communicate the message using optimistic but realistic language.

Managers must be consistent in their responses and messages staying factual and purposeful rather than veering between bad news and forced positivity.

Addressing rumours head on is also vital - even if the manager does not know all the answers. It is best to respond quickly to an issue even if it is to say you don't have any details on a concern but you will respond as soon as you do.

This minimises the risk of the rumour gathering momentum and creating further unnecessary stress.

Making it easy for people to get credible and confirmed information about the status of any element of its future operations is also vital. In addition to posting updates, provide Q&A's or schedule regular short "Come and Ask sessions".

Regardless of the context it is important to reinforce the standard that it is everyone's responsibility to work from the facts even if those facts are not always good news.

It is equally important to communicate expectations with those that are required to take on new responsibilities as a result of restructuring. Many people feel like the reward for retaining their job is being asked to do far more with far less, so it is important there are conversations about new and acceptable priorities and expectations.

Managers must take the time to assist their team members to prioritise and see progress in what they are doing. For some employees, change may even represent an opportunity to shine or acquire new skills.

Challenging times also call for compassion - but it must be balanced compassion - to respect the feelings of an individual while acknowledging that some decisions simply must be made. Compassion is critical and involves the ability to help people to understand that the majority of decisions are not personal even though they affect individuals at a most personal level. Respectful, factual and timely conversations are the least that employees should expect, even if they are not happy with the facts being presented.

Vivienne Anthon FAIM
Australian Institute of Management - Qld & NT, Chief Executive Officer