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Surviving Challenging Times

Most people dislike uncertainty. Therefore, the first priority of a manager should be to reduce uncertainty in the workplace by replacing fear, anger, and rumors with facts, sensitivity to employee concerns, and clarity of group goals and objectives.

by Samuel H. Liggero
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Guidelines and Behavioral Tips to Mitigate Organizational Uncertainty and Motivate Your Workforce

One constant that technical managers can count on is change—constant change. Change in technology, change in organizations, change in competition, change in supervision and, yes, change in the economic climate. How the technical or lab manager anticipates and responds to the constant and turbulent change that envelops an organization is frequently the difference between commercial and personal success and failure.

In this article I offer several thoughts on leadership challenges in turbulent times and techniques to address and overcome these challenges. Many of these suggestions can be implemented immediately and have been successfully tested during my 30-year career leading and managing large and small groups of scientists, engineers and technicians.

Most technical and business people dislike uncertainty. Uncertainty breeds distrust, fear, loss of confidence, anger, rumors, and all the attributes that complicate and usually retard progress and success in the lab or the office. Therefore, the first priority for the manager should be to reduce uncertainty in the workplace and replace the undesirable attributes mentioned above with facts, sensitivity to employee concerns, and clarity of the group goals and objectives.

Here are four managerial guidelines to follow at all times, especially in times of uncertainty and turbulence:

  1. Establish clear goals for all employees with clearly defined areas of responsibility and accountability.
  2. Communicate, motivate and inspire.
  3. Get out of the way.
  4. Invest in your employees.

Guideline #1 is all about ensuring that employees have meaningful work to do and personally identify with that work. They should take pride in their work and assume ownership and accountability for their results. This guideline is designed to establish clarity in the workplace and minimize redundancy. Guideline #1 should be revisited with employees several times a year to make sure that it is relevant and delivering the desired results. During turbulent times, it is essential that employees are gainfully employed and are not in stall mode.

Guideline #2 addresses communication. During times of stress and uncertainty it is vital for the manager to communicate frequently and honestly with the workforce. Communication takes many forms. In addition to staff meetings, small group meetings and town hall meetings, periodic written communication will help stabilize and motivate an organization. Also, the manager should continuously improve and employ keen listening skills. Employees need to be heard, and their issues should be discussed and resolved. By practicing these various communication skills, a manager can find a pathway to motivate and even inspire the workforce. One ofthe best ways to establish or regain trust with employees is by having frequent, honest and effective communication. This guideline cannot be overemphasized.

Guideline #3 means the manager must not micromanage. A micromanaged workforce is a demoralized, cynical workforce. During troubled times, it is common for managers to micromanage. What sometimes motivates this behavior is self-preservation. Managers may feel that the best way to preserve their jobs during troubled times is to appear to do the work of everyone else. This behavior must be avoided, because it is transparent, unproductive and debilitating for the employee. If Guideline #1 is in place, managers should focus on their own personal managerial goals and make it clear that they are always available when needed to support employees who seek support.

Guideline #4 encourages managers to support their employees. The underlying principle here is that managers get work done through their employees. Accordingly, employees are the most important asset of a lab or company. Support in this context includes financial support as well as moral support. Most people like to be recognized for a job well done. Recognition takes many forms, and the successful manager deploys many types of recognition, including financial recognition that appears in a paycheck or bonus and verbal or written recognition that is given in a public or private setting. The key benefit of this guideline is that employees will feel that their work is important and is appreciated and valued by their managers.

Consistently practicing of these four managerial guidelines, during good times and bad times, will help establish a stable and motivated workforce. These guidelines work best when the senior manager practices them and requires direct reports to also use them. One of the performance measures of the senior manager’s staff should be how well they are able to implement these guidelines in the workplace. In addition to these guidelines, I would also like to offer several personal behavior tips that, when adopted throughout an organization, can transform the organization and better enable it to survive and thrive in turbulent times. The initial burden of modeling and articulating these traits lies with the manager. Only then will the rest of the organization embrace some or all of these behaviors.

Below are 10 personal behavior tips that have been found to be effective as catalysts for discussions about individual and group performance improvement and as a road map to help guide scientists, engineers, technicians and managers. Consider adopting some or all of the following tips in accordance with the needs of your organization.

1. Relentlessly pursue growth…both business and personal. Without growth, a business dies. Without personal growth, employees stagnate and lose their value in the marketplace. Since most employees are likely to change jobs multiple times throughout their careers, it makes sense to develop new skills every year. These skills should be transferable and consistent with the business and technical goals of the organization. Each year, as part of the employee’s performance appraisal, a section addressing personal development goals should be jointly discussed and pursued. Most employees will find this exercise motivational and view it as a strong signal that management values and depends on their contributions.

2. Make sure whatever you do adds value to the customer. The assumption here is that employees recognize the link between their work and end users. This tip is very important for increasing productivity. As the global economy forces increased competition, organizations have to deliver more with less. One way to achieve this difficult goal is by eliminating useless or marginal work. Often a significant percentage of work time is spent writing reports that no one reads, having meetings that are not necessary or running experiments that are off strategy. The mindset of the organization should be to routinely eliminate work that doesn’t benefit the customer.

3. Embrace and help shape change in your company. After suitable discussion and debate around change initiatives in your group, embrace change and be a part of it. There is no longer any room and even less tolerance for spectators in the challenging times all organizations face today. Without frequent change, growth will dissipate. Managers should encourage and applaud employees who participate in and initiate positive change processes. The organization and the employee will both be strengthened by actively participating in change processes.

4. Learn to manage ambiguity and uncertainty. It would be wonderful if everything in the workplace were clear and predictable. It is not and never will be. Therefore, employees must understand that if they want less ambiguity in company or group issues, they should seek information from the many resources that are commonly available, such as the Internet and personal networks of friends and colleagues. Also, managers should anticipate issues that may be unclear or not well defined in the workplace or marketplace and address them swiftly, honestly and professionally.

5. Understand what high-quality leadership is all about and become a leader. A well-run organization offers ample opportunities for employees to grow into leadership positions and to practice situational leadership as conditions dictate. That is, sometimes a lower-level employee can assume the leadership role for a given problem or task if that employee is best qualified to solve the problem. Managers should encourage situational leadership to evolve, and employees should actively pursue such opportunities. By observing, studying and emulating effective leaders in all occupations, employees will be better prepared to rise to leadership positions.

6. Always remember that the uninformed inflame. In times of stress and turbulence in the workplace, rumors often spread and the results can be toxic and cause needless disruption. Rumors will often originate from people who have little or no information about a particular topic. That is, they are uninformed. By communicating often with the workforce, the effective manager can arrest the spread of rumors quickly and encourage employees to consider the source of a rumor before allowing that rumor to become disruptive.

7. Manage your energy budget. At the end of a busy day, or even in the middle of a busy day, especially in times of uncertainty, it is easy to be fatigued or listless and unproductive. This feeling is often due to depletion of one’s energy. Like a bank account, one’s energy for a given day is finite. Therefore, this valuable energy must be invested wisely. Unnecessary arguments, unfocused work and lack of direction will frequently lead to large expenditures of valuable human energy that are unproductive and unfulfilling. Employees who are able to manage their personal energy budget will be more productive each day and be a source of inspiration to others in the workplace.

8. When in doubt, rely on the facts. In a laboratory setting, scientists, engineers and technicians are trained to work with facts. If the facts relating to a particular situation are not available, usually they are sought out and eventually revealed. This is an excellent behavior to practice in all phases of business. When faced with a problem, rather than speculate or fabricate an answer, it is best to start with what facts are known about the problem at hand and then build a solution upon your foundation of facts.

9. Support your manager. One of the first signs that an organization is in trouble is when employees are openly critical of their manager. It is best to reconcile differences with one’s manager in private during a one-on-one conversation. If differences cannot be resolved, an option may be to look for employment under a different manager. Otherwise, organizational effectiveness becomes undermined and further stress builds in the workplace. To better understand one’s manager, it is helpful to role-play and try to put yourself in the manager’s position.

10. Be a team player. No one can succeed alone. The successful manager and employee should quickly learn the value of giving support and accepting support, depending on the circumstance. Good managers are accustomed to giving support. Great managers can both give and accept support. Accepting support is a sign of a confident manager who is striving to use all the talent in the group in ways that advance the mission of the group. It is a sign of strength and good judgment to be able to support employees and embrace their support.

In summary, the combination of the four managerial guidelines and the 10 personal behavior tips described in this article will enable a technical organization to better function during marketplace and economic turmoil such as we are experiencing in these times. Most of the suggestions in this article can be initiated within a few weeks and positive results can be expected within a few months. The concepts within the four managerial guidelines are well established and in part, or in total, practiced by many successful technical and business managers. The 10 personal behavior tips are a subset of many more tips that I have found to be effective.