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Employee EngagementKotter In The NewsLeading Through Crisis

Four Ways to Put Your People First During Economic Uncertainty

By Dr. Vanessa Akhtar and Shaun SpearmonDecember 6, 2022July 14th, 2023No Comments5 min read

Economic uncertainty has been, well, uncertain for a while now. But more and more business leaders are becoming convinced of one thing: a recession is coming. According to a recent KPMG survey, 86% of Global CEOs expect a recession to begin within the next twelve months. Coupled with a potential, significant structural shift in the labor market, organizations are at a crucial moment in time to build structure around prioritizing, communicating, upskilling and clarifying so their teams and people are prepared and deal with fewer vulnerabilities if, and most likely when, a downturn arrives.

Intentionally prioritize

In a time where employees may feel overwhelmed with both professional responsibilities and personal matters, it’s important for leaders to narrow the focus toward what is the most important. It becomes increasingly difficult to advance the most critical work when everything feels a priority. Further, it’s hard to maintain motivation, particularly in turbulent times, when it is unclear how one’s work is contributing to the broader organizational strategy. Tracing a clear line from specific initiatives or projects to the bigger picture can provide an increased sense of security in uncertain times, even if there’s a hiring freeze or looming fear of layoffs. It can also help shift your team’s mentality from “having” to do something to “getting” to do something, if they feel they understand the team’s strategic imperatives and how they fit into the bigger picture. Lastly, a key element of effective prioritization is to identify tradeoffs and pause or eliminate non-value add activities. Tactically, an immediate next step may be to review the recurring meeting invites you own and remove anything that conflicts or doesn’t advance the strategic priorities you’ve set for the team. As people juggle different dynamics, having the gift of time can be just that – a welcome gift to help employees focus their efforts.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

There’s a tendency to feel the need to wait until everything is totally “buttoned up” before communicating more broadly. But as a leader, even when you don’t have all the answers, being transparent about what you do and don’t know builds trust within your team. Avoiding the opportunity to lean into a transparent dialogue for fear of putting the team in a Survive state only amplifies the anxiety they may be experiencing. Even amidst a challenging circumstance, make sure your teams are confident that, no matter what, they’ll be the first in line to receive accurate information. While it doesn’t eliminate discomfort and uncertainty, it helps employees feel empowered and like you are a trusted resources that has their best interests in mind.

Build urgency around upskilling

In today’s competitive labor market, many employees are looking for their employers to make a commitment to their individual growth and to invest in their development. On the flip side, an employers’ greatest asset is their people – particularly when time and resources are spent on helping them reach their full potential.

The hybrid workplace has also accelerated an ongoing trend in how business is conducted. Teams are increasingly interacting with colleagues across time zones, functions, and divisions while navigating complex information flows in real-time. This increase in the need for collaboration, speed, and flexibility demands more leadership from more people. Helping employees develop the new skills and mindsets needed to thrive in this more connected, faster-changing, and virtual environment will allow companies to enhance productivity and innovation.

Provide clarity

Whatever your organization’s decision is around key initiatives or business operations, be sure to communicate the “why” behind that decision very clearly so expectations and circumstances are understood. Ambiguity is not your friend during times of uncertainty, like when there are rumors about layoffs or a hiring freeze swirling – it’s human nature for people to try to fill in the gaps themselves. For example, in the instance of a hiring freeze, the natural response is often, “there must be an issue at this company that I don’t know about.” This is a great opportunity for leaders to emphasize that the organization is making calculated, smart decisions on how to govern the business through volatile market conditions. Balancing optimism around the long-term business strategy and honesty around the short-term needs (and reality) are crucial. Being clear about what is going on internally and communicating this effectively can alleviate challenges or areas of doubt amongst your team or department. It also prevents employees from jumping to conclusions and sliding into panic mode when they feel overwhelmed by uncertainty.

Uncertainty demands solidifying intentional leadership behaviors and skills to ensure an energized and highly capable workforce. Now is the time to provide your teams and people with development opportunities for the future. Keep them focused and provide a clear sense of what you know and don’t know about the future.