First-Class Coach

The most important thing you can do is to flex your leadership style to suit the changed times.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 09 May 2012

Q: We've been through our third wave of redundancies and morale is at rock bottom. Is there anything I can do as a manager to get my team back to the cheerful productivity we enjoyed in the past?

Miranda Kennett: Many organisations, like yours, are suffering post-redundancy depression and finding that the undesired consequence of reducing staff numbers has been a fall in the quality of output. This is particularly true when there have been successive waves of downsizing. With the first tranche, it is possible to rationalise that there has been a cutting out of dead wood, that the people who left were not the most productive or important. With subsequent rounds, it becomes increasingly apparent that some of the best people are being disposed of, and that makes those who remain feel particularly vulnerable.

The 'survivor syndrome' was first diagnosed several recessions ago - the phenomenon of remaining staff often feeling guilty that their colleagues and friends were out of a job and nervous that they would be next. The result was that productivity, initiative and innovation suffered as those remaining on the workforce tried to keep their heads below the parapet for fear of drawing unwelcome attention to themselves.

One difficulty is likely to be reassuring your team that, despite what has gone before, their jobs are secure, provided they keep up the good work. Some businesses have tried to overcome the ill effects of redundancy by promoting those who remain and giving them small pay rises in recognition of the extra duties they are now taking on. If additional money is not available, even on the basis of earned bonuses, you may still be able to show your appreciation with changes in job title and status.

But the most important thing you can do is to flex your leadership style to suit the changed times. Those who favour the directive 'Just do it' style, which may have worked well in better days, need to be aware that this coercive approach, based on fear, is likely to be unproductive now. Even if it achieves short-term results, this method will tend to build resentment that will lead to defection by the most employable as soon as an opportunity to leave arises.

Other leadership styles that can be used to good effect include the consultative, democratic approach for decisions where the outcome is not mission-critical. Input from the whole team will help them feel they have a say in their own destiny and increase their self-esteem. Examples could be whether or not to employ interns and what form the summer party should take.

The coaching style is particularly valuable in developing enhanced performance in disaffected team members. This involves listening to what's going on for them as individuals and briefing them on tasks and projects in a consultative way that gains their engagement. This helps the person feel understood and appreciated and creates a loyalty to you and to the goals you set, a sentiment that may not be felt towards the organisation as a whole. For those who still feel resentful and apathetic, you can explain that, even if the worst happens and they lose their job, the good work they have done will ensure the best possible references for their new employers.

Once you feel you are on surer ground on the future of the organisation and your team within it, you can adopt the authoritative style of leadership, identifying the direction of the team and inviting them, through your empathic connection with them, to travel with you. This means showing clear and confident leadership, coupled with encouragement that together you can achieve your goals. It is probably wisest to choose shorter-term objectives, because this should enable you all to achieve and celebrate them, and also because, further out, the future is less certain.

My guess is that it's not just your team whose morale is low, but yours too. Getting yourself into a more positive state will help and you can do this by sharing your fears and frustrations with other managers and talking through what you are doing to improve morale and sharing your progress.

The other thing that can make a major contribution to your sense of security and your team's engagement is to glean and pass on as much information as you can about senior management's intentions. Even if the news is bad, it is better to know it and be able to plan for it than to be kept in the dark. The dark is where fear lies.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach.

- If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email:

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