Workplace Doctor: staff worried about job cuts

It’s that time of the year when companies typically make big plans for the next 12 months. But our budgets have been cut and our forecasts halved. As a result, morale on the shop floor, so to speak, is low. People are worrying about their jobs and whether or not the planned pay rises will go ahead. As a team leader, how do I motivate my staff in a period of such uncertainty? MN, Dubai 

Those who work internationally may have noticed some apprehension over business conditions both globally and regionally for 2016. The situation in China last week has added to the fears of many, and general uncertainty about the economic future of Brics countries is making chief executives nervous across the world, as a recent Hult survey shows. Job cuts and pay freezes, however, always feel a lot closer to home, and as your budgets drop to align with company forecasts, I am sure the rumour mill is beginning to churn.

First of all, I wanted to praise you for reaching out to seek ways to motivate your staff during a period of uncertainty, rather than joining in with the gossip. It is a sign of real leadership to focus on your team during times of change, although I am sure you still have questions yourself. In times of prosperity it is relatively easy to keep people feeling good as the abundant environment itself does a lot of the work for you, but when times look bleak, it can be tough to face up to the challenges ahead.

As competition increases, it is teams and organisations that work well together that not only survive but thrive. In times of financial difficulty there is a greater need to have experienced, enthusiastic staff who are just as committed to making the business a success as its leaders. The highest performing teams are often those that collaborate most effectively, working so closely together that they can develop “team resilience,” allowing strength to be drawn from the power of the whole group. This allows challenges to be faced together – and success to be experienced collectively.

But how can you create this atmosphere?

It is really important to start by making sure your team are engaged and believe in what the organisation stands for. They need to buy into the company values and also see your behaviour and the behaviour of other leaders as consistent with these values. Think about how your management style reflects this – are there tweaks you could make, or ways you could be more demonstrative of your commitment? Be aware that values sit deep; they are felt and experienced and when already anxious people do not see them in their role models they can become even more disengaged.

During times of ambiguity and change, communication is your greatest ally, allowing you to give people a sense of control and safety even when there are huge levels of uncertainty around. Try communicating what you know and being honest about what you don’t. If your team feels they are being kept in the loop, and that you are being honest with them, it will do wonders for their anxiety – it is not so much what you do but the way in which do it which makes the difference.

Taking a strong leadership position is the crucial final piece of the puzzle. If your team feels like they have been set adrift in stormy weather, panic is likely to set in. Show them they have a captain who will get them safely into port and they are much more likely to pull together for you. Managers that set inconsistent or unrealistic expectations during difficult times create a greater sense of uncertainty, which is extremely damaging to morale and causes problems in the long run. Take a clear and consistent approach to decision making, even when dealing with those who are resistant or challenging and your team should be confident good decisions are being made with the right intentions.

Doctor’s Prescription:

Motivating people during times of uncertainty is a rite of passage for good leaders. It separates those who can lead effectively from those who just scrape by. Showing this level of concern for your team is really encouraging, and gives me confidence that you are probably already getting it right. Remember that it is OK to be honest if the situation is bleak, but balance this transparency with support, guidance and understanding. By focusing on collaboration, creativity and cohesion, teams can survive and even thrive during challenging times. But this requires communication, clarity and compassion from all levels.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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