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Leading is tough, especially over the last few years

Bill’s blog last week was about leading in tough times, and I wanted to pick up some of those points, because leadership is always tough – it’s demanding to be responsible for the work of others.  For many of us, we get satisfaction from overcoming the challenges, but when issues are outside our control, we can get stressed.  As leaders, that’s when we need to pay the most attention to the colleagues we lead.  Because they are feeling that way too.

Difficult times change how people feel – so far, so obvious.  The question is why, and what can you do about it?   As to why, it’s simple human behaviour.  If you’ve ever been on a management course, you will have heard of Maslow’s pyramid.  At the bottom, there is the need for the basic requirements of life – food, air, water and so on – most of which are not a problem for us in the Isle of Man!  If those are satisfied, then the need for security becomes the thing that makes us tick. And as each set of needs are met, we move up the ladder to the next.

When times are good, most of us sit quite high up the ladder – work meets the basic needs, certainly, but if we’re not worried about them then we look for things like status, job satisfaction, friendship and so on.  But in more difficult times, fear about the basics will swiftly knock people back down to the bottom, and everything that management does will be seen through that filter.  So leaders need to be aware that the things that motivated our people before probably won’t work right now.

So what can we do about it, and make sure the work is done?  As Bill wrote, try to reduce anxiety by sharing information that they can actually use to work out where they stand.  Listen to their concerns, and be seen to take them seriously – the worries are real to them, even if you can’t see why.

Be prepared to deal with stress.  Look for the symptoms – increases in sickness or the use of alcohol, erratic behaviour, unusually aggressive behaviour – and be prepared to deal with them.  Stress is what happens when the pressure is greater than a person’s ability to cope, so we need either to help reduce the pressure, or make it possible to deal with the symptoms.

Forewarned is forearmed, so again make sure that people know what’s going on.  If you don’t, they will speculate anyway – and they’re likely to make a mountain out of a molehill.  Think about a ship at sea; it’s a lot better to make small adjustments early on to avoid the rocks than it is to do a handbrake turn at the last minute!  Excitement is the last thing people need when they’re already under pressure.

So if you want to keep up the productivity, and have people keep their mind on the job, there needs to be more leadership, not less.  When people are worried, people’s needs change to reflect the changed circumstances, and leaders need to respond.