The disruption that has unfolded over the past several months is enough to challenge even the most seasoned leader. As the entire landscape of the workplace shifts around them, agencies are forced to make critical decisions amid tremendous budget shortfalls. According to governing.com, “almost 60 percent of municipalities above 500,000 population will furlough employees, and nearly half will have to lay them off”.(1) As organizations navigate through deep cuts, it is imperative that leadership shifts their focus to the remaining staff and programs. Reductions in force impact everyone, and surviving employees can go through a myriad of mixed emotions. One lingering question for leadership and team members alike is: ‘how do we get past this?’ In order to move the organization forward leadership must consider the very real and personal impact this forced change will have on your employees, how the programmatic cuts effect the team beyond an operational level, and how to lead your team through this time of crisis. Providing consistent support and leadership for your team has never been more important.
Before we delve in, I would like to frame what you are about to read with a refresher on Kurt Lewin’s 3-step change model. First published in 1947, Lewin’s framework for change management is still widely used by organizations today due to its simple yet effective approach to instituting lasting change. Recognizing a need for simplicity and structure during times of change Lewin breaks his model down into three essential stages:
2. Change (or Transition)
As leaders, placing ourselves in the mindset of change managers during this time allows for a much more manageable and controlled approach during a time of forced change or crisis. The change we are all going through is not by choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t control, and manage, certain aspects of it. Here we will touch upon a few of the factors we as leaders must consider and reassess to ensure our team is supported during this time of crisis induced change.
The change we are all experiencing is not by choice, but rather by external factors beyond our control. Our perfectly formed ice castle is melting before our eyes, and we must be prepared to handle the resulting meltwater. When team members depart, the work they perform rarely follows suit. It is much more likely other team members are now saddled with additional workload, heightened expectations (real or perceived), and all of the stress that goes along with it. If not addressed this cycle will often lead to longer work hours, incomplete assignments, burnout, and ultimately, turnover. .
The crisis has forced the need for change, as the previous way of conducting business is no longer feasible. It is critical then, that leaders:
When shifting assignments, it is also important to consider the essential functions of each classification, and to stop to ask yourself if the changes being made will create a classification/ higher class pay issue in the future. If they cannot be avoided, consult with Human Resources to document the changes being made, whether or not they are temporary, and what solutions are available. These steps can save a lot of time, money, and raise morale in the long run.
The physical change currently unfolding in most agencies is apparent: there are less people and less resources available to meet the same, if not elevated, service goals. It is imperative for these physical changes to be acknowledged by leadership and accompanied by a change in leadership’s mindset. You can’t expect everything that was getting done previously will continue to look the same with less people and budget however, that doesn’t mean all deadlines get thrown out the window. Managers must lead the conversation and set new, realistic (this is key), performance goals based on everything discussed during the “unfreeze” stage. Performance goals are an extremely important element of change, and setting your employees up to successfully meet those goals will facilitate job satisfaction, which is critical right now. Be clear with your team in communication of the revised expectations and listen to their concerns. Providing clear direction eliminates uncertainly, and provides a structure that they can succeed in. Additionally, use this time to set expectations for self-care and show your teammates that their wellbeing is paramount to the overall success of the team. Stress the need for rest, relaxation, and sleep for your team and yourself. Proactively setting expectations for your team’s wellbeing will remove a huge stressor in a time where the lines of work-life are becoming increasingly blurred.
Employees are stressed out for obvious reasons. Are you creating an environment that fosters productive communication? Is the environment safe? Will your employees tell you when they need support or guidance? You as a leader must be proactive and create this space. Listening to your employees is always important, but in times of uncertainty, change, and crisis it is especially important that a great leader knows how to be a rock for their team. Communication is extremely important for all phases of change, however in a time of crisis you may not be in control of the communication during the initial unfreezing stage. This makes it even more important for leadership to emphasize communication during the time of change. Some things to think about when crafting your own communication strategy for your team:
1. What are the stressors external to your team?
2. What are the stressors internal to your team?
During times of uncertainty and change we as leaders tend to excel at focusing on the task at hand: we work with our resources, create a plan, rally our team around this plan, and say ready…set…go!! What we often discount is the importance of providing a roadmap to success, so our team feels confident in implementing the new vision. If we want to implement change that will stick than we must achieve buy-in from as many stakeholders as possible. You might be thinking ‘I communicated really well and I have buy in, so I’m good to go.’ That up front buy-in is great, and necessary, but let’s take the next step and foster long term, lasting, large scale buy-in. We want to embed the change, in a positive way, into our team culture going forward. This is where training comes in. Here are a few points to consider when implementing change:
Facilitating professional development through training is always important, but in a time of change, uncertainty, and crisis training can drive morale and create stability in an otherwise unstable environment.
As leadership at all levels is called upon to navigate continuously evolving levels of uncertainty and change, remember the basics. Unfreeze by addressing workload, guide your team through the change by setting expectations and communicating along the way, and help your team prepare for what’s next through training and establishing new procedures. The key is to not allow the change to manage you, but to utilize change management techniques to convert crisis into opportunity. In a crisis change is inevitable, and the risks of not managing these elements will manifest through stress, injury, low-morale, burnout, and turnover. By confronting a crisis as an opportunity to manage change, long term damage can be mitigated, and further opportunities will present themselves along the way. No matter what, keep the end goal in sight.
CPS HR Consulting is a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of integrated HR solutions to government and nonprofit clients across the country. Our strategic approach to increasing the effectiveness of human resources results in improved organizational performance for our clients. We have a deep expertise and unmatched perspective in guiding our clients in the areas of organizational strategy, recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, and training and development.