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Leading Change - How to support your team when they are worried about their jobs

Right now, many of the people you work with are worried about their jobs - are they going to have to start going back into the office, how safe will it be to travel to get there, how safe will they be when they get there, how secure is their job anyway? For others, their concerns will be around what happens at the end of the furlough scheme, or maybe they are worried about contact with the public or what happens if there is a second wave of the pandemic. As well as worrying about themselves they may be worried about their friends in the organization and the future of the business too.

And as leaders, we know how that feels since we are feeling it too - and it leaves us wondering how best to support our teams through this uncertainty. And yes, if it's your business you are feeling all of this too, regardless of the size of their business.

So are you ready?  It's time to get curious and make some choices about how you can lead and support your team when they are worried about their jobs.

What's In It For Me?

If you have ever led a team through change you will know that as changes are announced, even small ones, people's first reaction is to ask, sometimes out loud, sometimes not, What's in it for me?

Naturally, people will look at the changes from this perspective. Then let's add in our inherent negativity bias, the natural fight or flight reaction and our immense capacity to catastrophise, develop scenarios that don't end well, and which are based on so many assumptions most of which defy logic. It's no wonder that when it comes to our work when we tell our teams about changes they will assume the worst and at best feel a bit unsettled.

And this all happens as people process change and do check out Episode 2, How We Experience And Process Change, if you want to know more about that. As people move out of the ice-cream brain phase of change, where the initial panic feels like it does when you eat ice cream and your brain literally freezes, everything hurts and you are just trying to remember to breathe, the uncertainty and vulnerability creep in. As leaders, we need to manage that.

In the current climate with talk of a four or five-year recession and double-digit unemployment, and here in the UK with the government's furlough support coming to an end, as we work out what the future looks like for our organisations, people are naturally worried about their jobs and their future. Mainstream media is doing nothing to calm those fears!

How should I approach supporting my team when they are worried about their jobs?

So what can you, as a leader, do to support your team when they are feeling vulnerable and unsettled because they are worried about their jobs and how they can come back to work safely?

Well first up is acknowledge to yourself that this is happening.

You could choose to ignore what is going on for your team members and hope it just goes away, but this 'avoid and abdicate' strategy is not going to help anyone and will almost certainly make the situation worse. A much better choice would be to approach the situation with curiosity and compassion. There are a lot of very human emotions at play here and this combination will enable you to step into your role as a leader and work with what is happening rather than against it.

And that links to the second thing you will find it helpful to keep in mind. You have built great relationships with your team, and you may well even consider them friends or at least work friends. And yes, when people are feeling vulnerable and uncertain about their jobs and needing to feel safe they need their friends, but they also need their leader, their manager to step up and lead. Remembering that they all have other friends and you are their only leader through this will help you give them the support they really need and the support you are uniquely placed to give.

So now you are approaching it as a leader who is curious and compassionate what comes next?

Listen to Understand

When we are feeling this way we need to know people understand, so listening to what people are saying, and not saying, and then acknowledging how they are feeling will help you to show your team that you do understand what they are going through and what concerns them.

Interestingly this is a conversation many leaders seem reluctant to have and when I've talked to clients about why that is they usually worried about one of two things - making the situation feel worse for people or because they know what they have to say is bad news. You know your team, they are bright people and that's why they work for you.

Not acknowledging the concerns they have means they get bigger and bigger in people's heads and before you know it that feeling of vulnerability has become full on fear. The fear will expand to fill the vacuum left by your silence.

Listening and acknowledging people's concerns won't shrink the concerns by itself but it will stop them from growing out of proportion. If you are going to do all you can to ensure their long term future you need to keep the fear at bay so they can stay productive and engaged in their roles.

Having the conversations when you know the subject is hard and you don’t have all the answers takes courage, as leaders we often think we need to provide answers all the time - isn’t that why we are the leader?  Nope!  We need to be able to get beyond that belief so we don’t find ourselves paralyzed by the situations where we don’t know the answers. And when we do we create the space in our minds to get really curious, to find out what people are thinking and find out more about the situation. This, in turn, allows us to approach those conversations and help people feel understood and to find better ways to navigate situations and make decisions where we don’t have the answer.

In these kinds of circumstances, it's time to practice curiosity as a way to have great conversations. Ask great open questions which don’t suggest a particular answer and then listen, really listen and show then that you understand their concerns. During your conversations see what you can find out about the person, what is causing them to feel the way they do, what are they worried about happening? What do they need to know to make them feel better?

Challenge assumptions but don't judge

It may be tempting to judge their concerns and think they are stupid or irrelevant - but remember to the person they are talking to they are very real and very valid. When you show any judgement in a situation like this you damage the trust that someone has in you and you make it less and less likely that they will talk openly to you about things in the future, making it harder and harder to support them.

What you can do however is to challenge their assumptions. Asking them to tell you how they came to the conclusions they came to can result in some wonderfully rich conversations where you learn a lot about how they see the current situation. Again be sure not to judge what they are saying, and certainly don't tell them they are adding two plus two and getting six, you'll know from being on the receiving end of that kind of comment, that it's a sure way to close down the conversation and leave them feeling even worse. But you can give them any extra information you have, and share your perspective to help them see where their assumptions may not be valid.

Don't try to reassure people by over promising

It can also be very tempting to provide reassurances and answers that may make the person feel better but which either you don’t know to be true and which may not be grounded in the situation.

Make sure you are not implying that you can do something or deliver something you cant. It’s much easier to tell someone their job is safe than it is to acknowledge the possibility that it might not be. I’ve seen people do this for all the right reasons but if they later have to have the conversation about someone’s job being at risk that gets even more difficult since it will feel like you are going against your word and on top of the chaos that this conversation inevitably brings you are dealing with someone who is also thinking and probably saying ‘but you said’ This damages the relationship and makes it harder for the individual to process the changes that being put at risk of redundancy bring.

Obviously share what you do know with people when you are having these conversations. Share what you do know about the companies policies and what they are doing to create Covid safe workspaces, listen to the questions people have and if you need to ask them of the people putting the measures in place. Then, be clear about what you don’t know and what the situation really is.

Being honest and clear like this will build the relationship and allow you to work through the concerns that someone has

How much empathy should I show?

During these conversations, you need to show empathy for the other person and what they are going through- the chances are this is going to be easy as you are probably feeling some of the same concerns. And it’s OK to demonstrate your understanding by sharing your take on those concerns - but be make sure the conversation doesn’t become all about you and what’s going on for you - that’s not what you are going for here! We all have that one friend who asks you a question because they want to give you their answer, so you know how bad it feels especially when you are feeling stressed anyway.

When you overstep empathy and make the conversation about yourself you are also making it harder to keep listening to understand the other person’s perspective. There is a balance to be found here between showing empathy and understanding and being distracted by your own thoughts.

And when you do find that balance you will be in a position to help your team identify what is really important to them. Cutting through this fog of concern and identifying what is important about their working world, what they need from a job and knowing what success looks like for them, will allow them to find it what ever the future of their role. It will help you manage them for as long as they are in your team and should their fears about their role turn out to be true it will also allow them to know what they are looking for in the future.

Get the support you need too

And finally, you remember when we used to fly there was a safety briefing and we were told to put our oxygen masks in first? That rule applies here too - to support your team when that are concerned about their jobs you need to be taking care of yourself and making sure you have the support you need. You need your friends and family and you need someone to really listen to you and help you work out what’s important and what decisions you need to make. And that support can come from your own manager, your peers or an external coach.

Summary & Taking Action

OK, so in this episode, we have talked about how we can approach supporting our teams when they are worried about what the future of their work looks like, especially when we don't know ourselves. By being courageous and approaching conversations with curiosity, we can build trust, relationships and our own understanding of what is happening for people, we can help them feel heard and understood, feel valued and supported. When you support them like this, not only can you maintain your team's productivity, but you can also maximise the chances of a secure future for them where they are working in a way that is aligned with the things that are important to them.

The things I share are based on my experiences, and some will be more relevant to you than others - it’s up to you to decide what you take and apply from this podcast. That’s what curious choice leadership is all about - getting curious and building our understanding then evaluating what we find and making choices about what’s right for us and our business.

And the question I would like to leave you with is:

What can you do today to make your team feel more supported when they are worried about the future of their jobs?