Tough times bring out the best and the worst in our leaders. Understanding the relationships between natural human reactions and the means to circumvent the negative ones can make an enormous difference in the outcome for an individual and for an organization.
Start with yourself. If you think of the price of fuel and the implications for yourself and the business, do you tighten up? Do you start thinking about all the dominoes that are falling and worry? Imagine if you are the head of supply chain, or responsible for managing your distribution network? How do you think they feel right now?
Leadership, like mastery of any skill set, is based on some very fundamental qualities that may need extra nurturing during the tough moments. If you, as a business partner in your HR role, understand those fundamentals, you will be able to use your influence as a lever to help your leaders stay focused on the right things during challenges. You will also increase your ability to influence because they will feel more powerful, more confident and calmer simply because you walk into the room. Their openness to you and your message will increase exponentially as you learn to stay away from the wrong topics and add value on the right topics. Managing fear, confusion and arrogance are significant under any circumstances. They become essential during a crisis.
You must first understand how debilitating fear is. The myth is that the adrenalin rush is what creates enhanced performance. In reality, fear distorts focus and therefore inhibits performance. Your leadership responsibility is to first manage your own fear. If you are deciding or choosing with fear influencing your decisions, you are going to make mistakes. During crisis, those mistakes may make the difference between surviving and thriving.
Next, learn to identify the symptoms of fear based responses in your business partners. Pep talks where they talk about the bad things that will happen if people do not perform are a big “no, no”. Coach your leaders on staying away from fear based leadership. Remind them how good they are. Help them feel competent to handle whatever comes. Talk in terms of the need to stay focused on personal power, commitment, problem solving as opposed to all the things that can go wrong.
Encourage them to take care of themselves as opposed to working insane hours with high stress life styles. Taking time off, exercising, managing breathing and other means of working against tension are critical. You too must take responsibility for your own state of mind. As an HR leader, you must also take responsibility for the state of mind of others as well. Working frenetically will be counterproductive, and if you are doing so, STOP! Don’t enable or encourage long hours and lack of balance in others. You are all working against the outcome you seek.
Watch for symptoms of stress. People, including you, will fall into patterns of rushing or over-deliberating during crisis. If your partner is a rusher, remind him or her to slow down. Rushers are often afraid of losing control. If your business partner is a person who over-deliberates, remind the person that taking the risk of making the decision may be the most important thing he or she can do. Help the person find his or her confidence so that decisions don’t get bogged down in fear. The over-deliberator is afraid of making a mistake.
Help your leaders learn to operate from a sense of freedom. If they seem to distort their responses by trying to please others, they are distorting the outcome. Challenge your leader s to encourag e subordinates to feel confident to be truthful around them . Help them to be completely truthful to their leaders as well. Truth may be the most important weapon the organization has in solving its issues. You are the steward of the organization and your role is to help the leaders manifest the best outcome.
If you do not know what to do, do not pretend you do. This is not a popularity contest. This is an opportunity to form a powerful team against obstacles. Get clear and help your leaders to do the same. Too many crises are made worse by insecure leaders who don't know how to acknowledge their fear and uncertainty. The knee jerk responses create confusion in the organization.
Others will know when the leader is uncertain. They become confused and more frightened because the leader appears to be out of control. Encourage the leader to get all the information he or she needs to make good decisions by talking to people throughout the organization. Listening is an important factor in not creating more confusion.
Help your partners pay attention to the patterns. They will often lead them to the correct answer. For example, if your organization has lost a number of good customers, don’t let them assume they know the answer. Make them identify the patterns. Don’t tell them the answer. Make them look.
Cause and effect is a rule of physics. For every action there is a reaction. Challenge them to pay attention. Make sure they are paying attention to the good things that are happening as well as the bad.
Most important in the challenge of leading by managing confusion is to know your partners. Encourage them to know exactly what they stand for and to know how to communicate it. If you can help them to be clear about their essence, and to understand that their essence is their contribution, others will know what to expect. For example, if the leader is decisive, nurturing, or tenacious, tell them to remain consistent in their behaviors and expectations around that quality. If they do so consciously and do not become distracted by the expectations of others, their stamp on the organization will be clear. Their organization will become more decisive, nurturing, or tenacious as a result. Challenge them and encourage them not to compromise on who they are. Coach them to assume that who they are is exactly what is needed in this situation.
Humility in difficult times is essential. There are forces beyond any leader’s control and his or her job is to respond with Grace. There is a cycle to things and the cycle is absolutely going to go down. It will also go up. You, as the HR partner, may be the only voice of wisdom the leader hears. Help him (or her) remember that the cycles are a way of correcting for our mistakes. We must struggle through them, knowing that they will pass.
Help them to think more flexibly. Do not allow them to discount the decisions of others. They may be critical to their success. The decisions, even if they feel wrong, often reflect the fears of those making them and a leader must understand those fears as symbolic representations of the state of their followers’ ability to execute. Find ways to help your partners integrate the fears of his or her team into the decision processes. If the leader understands the fears, he or she can account for them in the execution and adjust the planning to diminish the fear. This does not mean he or she must accept the fears, but that he or she must account for them.
Remind yourself and your leaders that it is not just about what they want and the outcome they see. Be sure that they understand the importance of understanding what others need and want. Good leaders think in terms of the ecosystem. They make decisions based on the good of the whole, even when they must make sacrifices to do so. Anything less is irresponsible.
It should be apparent from the advice above, that in order to be a good HR business partner; you too must act as a leader. You will need courage in addressing the needs of your “customer”. It will not be easy, but it is necessary. If you do it well, your importance to your leaders will be assured. You are not competing with them as business leaders. You are not attempting to technically know their jobs. You are fulfilling your responsibility of nurturing them to be the best leader possible in the worst of circumstances.
Toni Lynn Chinoy is a senior leadership coach and often speaks to audiences about the fundamental qualities of strong leaders. She has authored many books on leadership and more info can be found at www.harlanevans.com.