Many of my clients are directly or indirectly affected by the downturn in the oil and gas industry. The oil patch has its cycles – just as we do in our lives. We all go through personal and economic ups and downs. During these uncertain times, I have observed what good leaders do to reduce anxiety and fear and make employees feel loyal and positive about themselves and their organization. I trust that some of these strategies will be helpful to you – both personally and organizationally.

1) Maintain health habits. In times of stress and uncertainty, you may not have time for rest, exercise, renewal or connections with good friends, but these are the times when such habits are needed most. During tough economic cycles, it is easy to conclude that you don’t have the money for celebrations, leadership development, or attention to people. However, this is when it is important to keep your personal and organizational health habits in tact, regardless of the external uncertainty.

2) Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. If you have ever had a loved one taken to hospital by ambulance, you know how crucial it is to be informed about what is happening. When things around us are uncertain and people feel vulnerable and overwhelmed, getting information is critical. They worry about cutbacks and layoffs. Tell people what is happening in your company, team or department. Even if you don’t know, tell people that you don’t know. Be open and honest. Open the lines of communication by listening for concerns and responding to these concerns as much as you are able.

3) Be creative. While uncertain and unstable times may not lead to your highest levels of productivity, chaos is a time to be creative. When Vince Deberry, Executive Director of the University of Oklahoma Center For Public Management, was threatened by layoffs and downsizing a few years ago, he asked his staff, “Do we want to be frozen by fear or do we want to be proactive in shaping our future?” They brainstormed ways to be more effective. Many of the departments were asked to come up with ideas to be more efficient. Leaders were assembled and resurrected solutions that years earlier were irrelevant, but now helped save the organization without having to lay people off. In the process of transparency, openness, and innovation, the organization actually took steps toward building trust that remains today. The uncertainty was seized as an opportunity to build a community. Today they have a thriving organizational culture of trust, collaboration, and innovation.

4)   Take care of your people. Use times of uncertainty to invest in relationships and cultivate trust. Make deposits in the trust accounts of the people who depend on you and upon whom you depend. Real wealth lies not inside of your infrastructure, but inside of your people. Take care of people. It doesn’t cost any money to care about each other. Hard times remind us to go back to the basics.

5)   Distinguish between what you can and can’t control. Three simple rules can help keep your sanity and serenity when facing any challenge: 1) change the changeable; 2) accept the unchangeable; and 3) remove yourself from the unacceptable. You might find it helpful to make two lists: first, list everything that is outside of your control and second, write everything that is within your sphere of influence. Then let go of everything in the first list and get to work on what you can change. Finally, remove yourself from any situations or relationships that are compromising your values. When you learn to do this, you will not only make a significant positive impact on the people who depend on you, you will also sleep better at night.

6)   Keep your character in tact. It’s not the fierceness of the storm that determines whether we break, but rather the strength of the roots that lie below the surface. Character is the courage to meet the demands of reality. It means facing the truth – with your family, your employees, and your creditors and resisting the human tendency to withdraw and escape. Don Campbell, a rancher from Meadowlake Saskatchewan, taught me years ago, “When your wealth is lost, something is lost; when your health is lost, a great deal is lost; when your character is lost, everything is lost.”

7)   Take time for reflection and learning. Times of change and chaos are good times for creative thinking and exploring new ways to lead your business and your life. Get some coaching. Step back and set goals, clarify what matters most in your life, and develop new strategies. Just as we must resist the tendency to withdraw in the face of crisis, we must resist the inclination to stop learning. The philosopher, Eric Hoffer, wrote, “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

8)    Maintain perspective. Whenever I think of hard times I think of my grandfather, who raised ten kids in a 900 square foot shack on a farm during the Depression. Besides growing sugar beets, Bill Stewart worked three jobs off the farm to support his family. My mother told me that once all they had to eat was potatoes for months. Grandpa’s family reminds me of the old adage, “I used to complain about having no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.” Maintaining perspective also means realizing that you are more than your job, and that your job fits into a wider life context. After being laid off, a client of a colleague stoically maintained, “I’m only unemployed between 9 and 5.”

9)   Find a new source of security: The “3 F’s”. When your outer world is disrupted, it is good to remember the “3 F’s of security: Faith, Family, and Friends. Faith is about finding a spiritual strength that is personal to you. Within your circle of family and friends you can find people who care about the person you are, independent of your successes and failures and will help you see the world with a new perspective. Faith, family, and friends are very precious. Living without them is like trying to survive a Canadian winter without a coat.

With spring upon us, make time to relax, open your heart, and pause to reflect: What matters most? What is truly important? How can you stay present to the wonders and beauty that surround you at this moment?

10 Keys For Leading In The Layoffs

If your business is at all connected to the oil patch, layoffs have become so common this year that it is unusual to meet a senior manager who hasn’t had to manage a reduction in their work force or isn’t in the midst of planning one. It is helpful to reflect on ways to provide leadership in times of downsizing and uncertainty

The decision to downsize and the choice of who is to be laid off can be so wrenching that many managers have little energy left to consider what happens after the layoff.  How do you help the shell-shocked survivors recover and move forward in a productive way? How can you rebuild a great culture after you have laid people off? How can you build morale and increase employee engagement when you are downsizing your workforce?

Below are ten strategies for guiding your culture toward cohesiveness, engagement, and trust while laying people off. Even if your organization isn’t currently cutting back its workforce, you will find these approaches helpful in the midst of any change:

1) Acknowledge the emotions. During layoffs, people go through a wide range of legitimate feelings and they need structured opportunities – half an hour a week or the first ten minutes of a meeting – to express honestly how they are doing. Just because people didn’t get laid off doesn’t mean they’re happy.

2) Make it safe to open up. As a leader, you aren’t responsible to fix the feelings that arise; people have to take responsibility to deal with their own emotions. Your job is to create a respectful and safe space where people can open up and feel support from the organization. Let people know that being honest will never be a career limiting decision. If you find people are holding back in these sessions, get them into smaller groups where you know there are pockets of trust.

3) Allow some space for grieving. People need space to grieve and say good-bye to their colleagues and friends. I’ve seen people cry and hug as they walk out the door. You cannot make it worse by inviting people to be honest. It’s about being human, and supporting this helps create a more fully human organization. How can we expect people to be engaged if we don’t accept and support people to be where they are?

4) Exercise patience – with yourself and others. Recognize that when people are in shock they behave in uncharacteristic ways. When people are vulnerable they may act out or blow their top. Don’t be surprised if it happens to you. As managers, you’ve been busy planning and managing the layoff and solving problems. Cut yourself some slack and don’t forget to apologize personally to anyone who got in the path of your outburst.  Emotional turmoil is all part of the transition process. It is a positive step forward and everyone needs to learn to deal with emotions constructively in a way that doesn’t inflict pain or fear.

5) Respect that people are in a transition. One day everything is fine; the next day a layoff is announced. One day you have a department with a hundred people; the next day there are sixty-five.  These are external changes that can happen quickly. Transition, the reorientation that people go through to come to terms with the change, takes time and intentional leadership. Give people time and clarity to understand the process of transition and the time to work through it.

6) Focus on creativity and community, not productivity. While it’s unrealistic to expect that work is going to stop while people come to terms with their emotions, putting added pressure on them when they are hurting and stressed by the workload creates mistrust, destructive tension, increased anxiety, and low morale. There’s always a drop in productivity. Smart leaders understand this and work with it. Getting the group to help you solve problems and come up with creative solutions is a good way to get support yourself, get collective wisdom from your team, and give people a sense of meaningful importance.

7) Create an opportunity for people to have some degree of control. Destructive stress is created when people feel they don’t have any influence over what is happening. There are two fundamental questions that need to be answered in tumultuous times:

  • What are we committed to preserve? Not all change is good. We have to be clear and have some control over what we won’t allow to change.
  • What must we be willing to let go of? People need to be given the opportunity to acknowledge and say good-bye before they can start to think about the future.

8) Share as much information as you can. Tell people what you know. Tell them what you don’t know. Information eases stress.

9) Bring a compass with you. It is a habit of human beings to run faster when we have lost our way. In these chaotic, uncertain, demanding times, we just don’t know what we will face ahead of us, and there is no road map to take us there. It’s more important than ever to stop and get your bearings. Be guided by a vision, values, and principles, both personally and organizationally, rather than by emotions or the pressures of others.

10) Build a Bridge and Get Over It. Eventually, even with all the support and strategies for being creative and building a collaborative community in your organization, you have to get on with your work and your life. You have to take accountability for your own emotions and reactions, and make a decision to change your attitude, support your organization, or move on.

For those who have experience with layoffs and downsizing, you know that, while the current reality may be chaotic, one can always take solace in the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow to allow you to get on with the next chapter of your life. Look forward to the adventure with some focused planning, a firm resolve, a renewed vision for the future, patience, perseverance, and a positive outlook.

If your organization is currently undergoing significant change, feel free to contact me to explore how I might help guide you through the transition process.