Livin’ on the edge / You can’t stop yourself from fallin’/ Tell me what you think about your situation/ Complication, aggravation is getting to you
If chicken little tells you that the sky is fallin’/ Even if it wasn’t would you still come crawlin’ back again/ I bet you would my friend
(Living on the Edge, Aerosmith)
It has become nearly impossible to access a news site off late without coming across a report or opinion piece on how layoffs are imminent in the Indian IT/ITeS sector. Experts, who understand this sector much better than I do, seem to attribute the negative sentiment among companies in the sector to rising protectionist sentiments in traditional markets, impending rise of AI and ML and subsequent loss of jobs to automation. Some even feel that the entire sector was ‘lazy’ and that the loss of jobs was a foregone conclusion. And all those share buy-back offers by IT majors? Now that simply has to be the ultimate proof that things aren’t going well at all!
If all this fearmongering makes you want to scream out loud, join the line. As Aerosmith put it so well – it feels a bit like ‘Living on the Edge’!
So yes, there is an increased level of VUCA in the macro (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). And yes, since (most) media outlets need high decibel fear mongering to get their eyeballs, the other (in)famous acronym FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) is in play too at the micro level. New ‘strategic plans’ presented by managers are not easy to believe at this point.
But this doesn’t make things any easier for management of companies. What can leaders and people managers do in this fluid situation to better engage their teams?
Easy – just FLIP the VUCA.
If that statement just made you go Hmm…read on.
In times of crises (external or internal), the biggest mistake companies make is to close all lines of communication and issue terse mass mails with legalese. Those ‘All is well. Don’t talk. Don’t listen’ mails don’t help in any way to build team morale. On the contrary rumour mills start working overtime when the lawyers start writing employee communications.
Employees must be firstly recognized as the key stakeholders that they are. To prevent false information and rumours from circulating, management must increase the frequency of internal communication and establish channels of feedback.
Liz Guthridge(1) nicely categorizes the required set of actions in dealing with uncertain environments into the (convenient) acronym F.L.I.P
- Focus: There will be lots of incorrect and useless information floating around that will add to the anxiety of employees. In today’s social media fueled world, it is nearly impossible to control what gets circulated. Managers are better off focusing their communication on what is relevant to the organization and to their teams.
- Listen: Pay attention to what people are talking about. Once you start to really listen, patterns emerge in the rumours being circulated and the real questions will be only a few. Everything else is fluff.
- Involve: Get the employees involved in the process of dispelling rumours. In addition to addressing everyone through Town-Halls or mass emails, identify and get on board influencers – the employees who are vastly respected in the organization and get them to pass on the right information.
- Personalize: The message you send should not come from your legal team. It should come from you – the manager, the leader or even just a colleague who gets ‘it’ and doesn’t want to add fuel to the rumours. The anxiety of a twenty something fresh recruit will be very different from that of a forty something mother of two. Each of them needs a very different message from their manager.
What are we FLIP-ing VUCA into (and how does recognition help) ?
There are several ways to achieve your ‘flip’. One is of course through a well-coordinated and planned explicit communication campaign. The other (and arguably more powerful and sustainable) way is to drive behavioural change by recognizing the right kind of achievement. Managers and Leaders can show teams the desired set of activities and values by appreciating publicly those who align themselves with the new direction for the organization.
Each of the steps in the FLIP can be encouraged by consistent and public recognition of the employees who proactively and consistently show the way.
- Acknowledgement: The very first step towards countering the stress and confusion brought about by a volatile environment is getting the teams to acknowledge that there is uncertainty at this particular point in time and there isn’t much to be achieved by getting stressed out about it.
“Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth.”
— The Diamond Sutra (Zen Koan)
One way to help build consensus on the new normal is to appreciate the efforts of team members who might conduct information sessions on how changes in the technology landscape/client priorities affect the organization and more importantly what to do about it. When there is a strong backing by management to those who help teams to focus on what is relevant, the rumour mills will eventually wither and die.
- Competency (Building): Okay so someone came along and moved your cheese. Digital, Automation, ML, AI – buzz words today, potential reality tomorrow. When tectonic shifts happen, it pays to understand the lay of the land and move in the right direction instead of digging in deeper and hoping ‘this’ will all blow over.
“What you are afraid of is never as bad as what you imagine. The fear you let build up in your mind is worse than the situation that actually exists.” (Spencer Johnson, Who moved my cheese?”
It’s not easy for team members to buy into to ‘yet another re-training’ and the inertia is understandable. Once again strategic recognition helps to influence behaviour. Companies could institute a gamified recognition program where those who top re-training programs or complete projects get special recognition.
- Upskill: While teams prepare for new things on the horizon, the ‘show must go on.’ But there is usually enough scope for improving the way the show is run.
“If you don’t value your time, neither will others. Stop giving away your time and talents. Value what you know and start charging for it.” (Kim Garst)
A challenging time are also a good time to revisit how things are being done. In order to build new competencies, one needs to ‘create time’ and to do that teams need to work smarter, collaborate better and upskill. Recognizing and appreciating those who bring about process efficiencies or maybe volunteer to help others to be more efficient, helps to create a sea change.
- Victories (Celebrate): The journey to overcome challenging times is long and can be exhausting. Like all good commanders, leaders know that it is critical to keep the morale of the troops in order to win the war. It is important to celebrate small victories along the way and social recognition is the perfect way to amplify achievements of the team.
All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. (Sun Tzu)
Empower managers to appreciate (and reward) team members who conscientiously work towards helping the organization achieve its new goals and targets. A client appreciation, a process improvement, an innovative approach to a problem – it could be any or all of these. Amplifying those seemingly small wins to everyone in the organization, has a huge impact on the overall motivation levels. People then know that small battles are being won all the time and it’s a matter of time before the war is won in the marketplace.
References and Acknowledgements:
- Liz Guthridge: FLIP to thrive in our VUCA world (https://connectconsultinggroup.com/flip-to-thrive-in-our-vuca-world/ accessed 17 May 2017)
- Dilbert Strip, (dilbert.com, Scott Adams)