How to engage employees during organisational crises & significant change

How to engage employees during organisational crises & significant change

Every organisation has either gone through – or will experience – a serious crisis during its existence. That’s inevitable and often uncontrollable, according to employee engagement expert and speaker at this year’s AHRI conference, Dr James Adonis. What is manageable, however, is how the leadership team responds to the dilemma. Here’s how it’s done.

When an organisation is on the up and up, two-way communication between managers and employees is easy, motivation levels are high and there’s a lack of concern about potential hardships on the horizon. But it’s at precisely this period that the leadership team should be planning for the inevitable troughs of company life.

“It doesn’t take that much effort to engage and motivate staff when things are favourable,” Dr Adonis says. “But when there is an organisational crisis, there is an immediate threat to survival. When that happens, people panic. There’s lots of gossip and rumours, and a lot of negativity.”

Perhaps more concerning is that there is no specific playbook by which to prepare for troubled times. According to Dr Adonis, adequate training, emotional intelligence and buy-in from the entire company are vital to dealing with a crisis, and HR has an important role to play if the company wants to make it out the other side unscathed.

Staff must be trained to recognise when hardships are on the horizon

Most of the time, employees don’t even realise there is a threat to their organisation until well after the crisis has begun.

“There’s often a delay,” Dr Adonis says. “So when the error occurs – and that could be an error of action or an error of omission – no one really knows about it until the crisis hits, and that could be days or months of delay.”

This compounds the problem for staff, who often feel overwhelmed by the sudden change of environment, and helpless against a crisis that is in full swing.

“It impacts the employees because they see it as a threat to their own livelihood,” Adonis says, “and that livelihood is more than just their job security. It’s also their personal wellness, their relationships at home. It’s impossible to switch that off when an employee gets back to his or her house.”

In recent years there have been major household names – such as Kodak, Blockbuster and Compaq – that have dwindled to a husk of their former selves or shut up shop entirely, leaving longstanding employees out of work unexpectedly. And while hindsight might be 20/20, there are signs of hardship that every employee should be trained to spot.

While not every business that endures hardships will end up closing its doors, it is important that employees are adequately trained to spot common signs that a company is struggling:

·         Top managers and executives are moving elsewhere.

·         Common perks for staff are removed.

·         Communication between managers and their teams are stifled.

·         Good people jump ship (and the not-so-good people stick around).

Buy-in is required from every department – starting with HR

Dr Adonis believes the HR department has a critical responsibility – prior to a crisis – to coach the leadership team on how to respond appropriately during an organisational crisis. Without proper training, even the most experienced managers can become ‘mentally absent’ during hardships.

“My doctoral research revealed, surprisingly, that the number-one thing that disengages employees the most – and this was by every single respondent except for one – was ‘laissez-faire leadership’,” he says. “That means a leader is passive or invisible or naïve, or they don’t communicate. They are pretty much absent.”

To ensure employees remain motivated and engaged, HR must be switched on at all times – especially during the ‘good’ times. Dr Adonis advises: “HR should identify which leaders are likely to become passive, and intervene quickly to make sure those leaders are providing information to their employees.”

Case study: How leadership and communication could have helped

Dr Adonis cites the case of a financial company in Sydney that underwent a major overhaul. He says appropriate HR intervention during this period could have ultimately saved the organisation from collapsing.

“The company was going through both a merger and a restructure at the exact same time,” he explains. “The result of that was uncontrollable gossip and rumours. That made the CEO extremely nervous, and the only way he thought he should control it, was to ban it.

“Of course that didn’t stop any of the gossip. In fact, it made it all the more toxic and vociferous. And that organisation no longer exists. While that’s not because of that one incident, I do believe it contributed to a culture where people felt as though they shouldn’t put as much effort into helping the organisation as they otherwise would have, had they been provided with an avenue through which to express how they were feeling and thinking.”

The 3 phases of HR action in a crisis

The HR department has an obligation to protect its company and its people not only during a crisis, but before and after it as well. Dr Adonis summarises this system in three parts:

Pre-crisis – train for prevention and appropriate crisis management

“It comes down to the extent to which managers and leaders are being coached, developed and trained to prepare for a crisis. HR managers have to make it a priority that their leaders are prepared for when the next crisis will come, and when it does come how they will respond to it.”

The key here is putting the focus on prevention. While you may not be able to prevent every crisis from affecting the workplace, you can train staff and leaders in prevention methods that help them act appropriately during the hardship.

The Institute for PR cites a helpful four-step crisis-prep package for this pre-crisis phase. It involves:

·         Having a crisis management plan and updating it annually

·         Having a designated crisis management team that is properly trained

·         Conducting regular exercises to test the crisis management plan and team

·         Pre-drafting crisis management messages (that are vetted by legal) for employees, stakeholders and external parties, and having templates for crisis statements.

During the crisis – put company needs above personal needs

“HR managers have to be aware that we are emotional beings. That means that when a crisis hits, leaders may forget what they were taught. HR managers must be proactive and identify specifically which leaders are not adhering to what was taught in the pre-crisis phase. That could be as simple as holding leaders accountable – if you’re a leader, you must forget about yourself and your own needs, and instead focus on the needs of those you’re inspiring.”

There was an instance where a much-respected CEO was forced to terminate the employment of a worker. Disgruntled at their firing, the worker made false accusations against the CEO, which forced the executive to take a temporary leave of absence. In the interim, the COO stepped into the CEO role and was coached by HR in how to communicate with staff appropriately during this difficult time – rather than sweep the problem under the rug, it was addressed head on with staff through open and honest communication. The CEO was reinstated shortly after, and the company’s leadership team became even more respected and effective leaders.

Post-crisis – take time to reflect on how the situation was managed

“After the crisis has been overcome, it’s incumbent upon HR managers to get the organisation’s leaders to self-reflect and formally document what they learnt from the experience. Then, HR’s role is best served in regard to employee engagement.”

To do this effectively, Adonis recommends HR managers conduct surveys and focus groups where honest conversations with leaders and managers about what they could have done better in light of the circumstances are encouraged.

Ultimately, Dr Adonis recommends proactive training from HR and – above all else – good communication with staff. Without it, a minor bump in the road can quickly mutate into an unmanageable crisis.

“In the absence of information, employees fill it with speculation,” Dr Adonis says. “And that is very dangerous.”

Want to know how your employees will perform in a crisis? Find candidates best suited to your organisation by using CVCheck’s suite of tailored predictive psychometric assessments.

Dr James Adonis is one of Australia’s most well-known employee engagement and team leadership educators. His research has delved into the ways leaders can engage employees during organisational crises and significant change, and he possesses qualifications that span a diverse range of disciplines including business leadership, marketing management and political science.

Author of several books including The Motivation Hoax and Employee Engagement, James will be a concurrent speaker at this year’s AHRI National Convention & Exhibition in Melbourne, and will be conducting book signings at the CVCheck stand during the afternoon tea break on Wednesday, August 29.

About the expert

Dr James Adonis is one of Australia’s most well-known employee engagement and team leadership educators. His research has delved into the ways leaders can engage employees during organisational crises and significant change, and he possesses qualifications that span a diverse range of disciplines including business leadership, marketing management and political science.

Author of several books including The Motivation Hoax and Employee Enragement, James will be a concurrent speaker at this year’s AHRI National Convention & Exhibition in Melbourne, and will be conducting book signings at the CVCheck stand during the afternoon tea break on Wednesday, August 29.

Want to know how your employees will perform in a crisis? Find candidates best suited to your organisation by using CVCheck’s suite of tailored predictive psychometric assessments. Find out more about AHRI.

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