Any sporting coach will tell you that the moments when your job matters the most – and can have the most impact on the outcome – is when your team is down and out. What can HR do to coach a team back after a defeat?
Recent news that public broadcaster the ABC plans to cut 200 jobs in management by June 2017 shows how disruption can upend business teams. The redundancy announcement, which ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie described as part and parcel of a “year of action and change”, will see a new focus on regional content and a greater investment in indigenous coverage.
Any dramatic company change necessarily results in winners and losers, no matter the workplace – whether it’s a white collar office or blue collar factory. The natural human reaction tends to be the same: shock, anger and a sense of profound uncertainty about the future.
It’s also a situation that can provoke a “fight or flight mentality, particularly for high performers,” writes Athena Chintis, CAHRI and AHRI NSW state councillor.
“When a team is on the losing side, it’s frustrating for top players who are driven by the desire to win.”
“For companies posting poor results or suffering a setback there can be a similar impact. All of a sudden, your key people and high potential employees can start looking for greener pastures.”
The challenges of doing great HR during a losing season
But this isn’t just a question of retaining top talent. When the chips are down, whether that’s due to restructuring, a bad financial year, or a host of other reasons, many employees will be feeling less-than-inspired about the company name at the end of their email signatures.
“When you focus on high-performers, particularly in times of stress, you lose your perspective on the bulk of the workforce,” says Laurie Hibbs, cofounder of people management consultancy NoJAC. Where managers tend to focus on the top and the bottom of the workforce, he says, when things are strained, you need to recommit to the people who make up “the heart and soul of your organisation.”
So, what can HR and other leaders do to retain talent, maintain employee engagement and encourage high performance during difficult times?
No matter how committed you are to clear and open communication with your team, periods of upheaval present a crucial moment to refocus your energy on ensuring you have a strong relationship with key people within the organisation.
HR needs to communicate with management about decisions that may affect staff.
“If people are strongly motivated by money, for example, and the company’s financial position won’t support pay rises or bonuses, you’ll need to find some alternatives,” says Chintis.
It’s also important for HR and managers to engage in open and honest channels of communication with staff, according to Jacqueline Hill, founder management consultancy, J Hill Associates.
Particularly for employees who remain following redundancies and restructuring, “you need to give staff an opportunity to vent,” says Hill. “It’s similar to a bereavement process, and some staff need time to come to terms with it.”
It’s an argument Hibbs reiterates. Though there may be a reluctance among management to “unpick” what has happened, Hibbs recommends giving staff an open – and public –forum to acknowledge their worries.
“When management prepares a press release, or plans for what the FAQs will be, it comes of as inauthentic, or even worse, spin.”
In this forum, staff should also be given the opportunity to articulate their professional ambitions for the future, and importantly, identify what practical steps, can be taken towards achieving that goal.
2. Find new ways to engage your employees
Following redundancies and restructuring, employees are understandably anxious to understand where they fit into the new structures.
When it comes to individuals who were clearly retained for a reason, “it’s essential that you share this with them and explain their importance to the business,” says Isabel Chadwick, managing director at CMC.
“Share the organisation’s recovery plans and create personal development plans that are closely aligned with these, as well as their own career and lifestyle ambitions,” she says. Whether they want to achieve promotion by a certain date or work more flexibly, linking their personal goals to the organisation’s goals will greatly enhance their desire to stay.
And if the issue is cash flow, look for alternatives to a promotion or formal training to help high performing employees strengthen their CVs.
See if there’s a way to upskill them on the job (without the cost of formal study), or look at providing developmental opportunities to allow someone to work in another area of operations or in another company location.
3. Encourage people to re-set their perspective
Whether the reference point is Rocky or The Mighty Ducks (hi, millennials), HR is in the unique position to reframe the story of a company for employees, as well as reconnect them to the company’s mission statement.
Upheaval means that you need to invest more time and energy into nurturing a unified company culture, says Chintis.
“A strong sense of belonging and purpose can really help people to ride out short-term disappointments. Otherwise, internal blame can create divisions that are lasting and deeply damaging.”
Employees can easily lose their sense of belonging after lots of redundancies, as “people can be fearful of re-bonding with colleagues because they lost colleagues before,” says Dr Wolfgang Seidl, executive director, The Validium Group.
For them to get over this, Seidl suggests HR must give employees back a sense of control and find creative ways of bringing everyone together again. This could range from getting small groups to focus on business-critical projects to setting up an after-work sports club.
“Whilst you need to be transparent and honest about the current state of affairs,” says Jessica Van Der Walt, talent team leader at Employsure, HR can be the driving force in inspiring people to work towards success. “Be intentional in crafting a narrative that provides a sense of hope, direction and confidence for the future.”