June 9, 2010
Credit Union Management’s online-only “NextGen Know-How” column runs the second Wednesday of every month.
Tough economic times can wreak havoc on an organization and leave managers and employees feeling stressed out, uncertain about their jobs, and resentful. Many credit unions are faced with making tough decisions about costs and spending that result in staff reductions, a decrease in benefits, salary freezes and lower employee morale.
These circumstances put more pressure and strain on leaders to keep teams engaged and productive during tough times. This makes strong leadership skills even more important for bringing a sense of continuity to your credit union.
Times of change and uncertainty are difficult for all leaders, whether they have 40 years on the job or just 40 days. For those who are new to a leadership position, knowing how to begin can be daunting. The following strategies are good place to start.
Employee engagement goes much deeper than competitive salaries and benefits and great company perks. A survey by Harvard Business Review (2008) asked employees what they most want from their leaders. Managerial support and involvement was the No. 1 factor cited by employees.
Specifically, employees want managers to ask their opinion, involve them in decisions, give them the authority to do their job, and support them when they make a mistake. Employees also said they wanted basic praise from their managers—whether it’s personal, public, written or electronic. Employees need to feel a sense of appreciation and support from their leaders, particularly in tough times.
Even in the good times, employees crave support and recognition from their managers. Developing a holistic approach to employee engagement will reap the best rewards for your organization and ensure employees can ride out the tough times feeling encouraged and supported.
A survey conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership found that the greater the stress an organization is facing, the more important a leader’s soft skills become. The survey cited three distinctive characteristics associated with leaders who were most successful in leading their organizations through transitions: They were skilled in honest, proactive communication; they were willing to articulate clearly the rationale for change despite the pain those changes may cause; and they listened well and demonstrated sensitivity when dealing with employees.
If you are new to a leadership role, you have a great opportunity to set the tone in your department and instill a sense of belonging in your team. Here are seven strategies for leading your team in tough economic times:
Communicate often and honestly. During tough times, how you communicate is just as important as what you communicate. Take real care in crafting your departmental and organizational message to ensure employees are kept in the loop and feel involved. If your credit union is cutting back on benefits or freezing salaries, explain the rationale behind the decisions to help employees understand. Allow them time to ask questions to understand better.
Be explicit about the vision and expectations. The credit union vision can’t just be something posted on the wall or in a strategic plan. Employees need to understand exactly where the credit union is going and what that means for them. Specifically, what is the employee’s responsibility in helping the credit union reach those goals? Be very clear about the goals and expectations so employees know what they are working toward. Break down strategic and departmental projects into specific objectives with deadlines for your staff. If one of your departmental goals is to implement a software program, create milestones for the employees involved with explicit due dates.
A compelling vision also helps to instill a sense of pride and fulfillment among employees. Once you set expectations and goals, get out of the way. Don’t micromanage employees on every detail. Give them the freedom to complete the task on their own. Be available for help and support. Set mutually agreed upon timelines and check in dates.
Recognize. When leaders are stressed, they often hunker down and focus on the task at hand. During tough times, recognizing employees is even more important since there are often a lot of changes that bring instability and strain to the organization. Make it a top priority to recognize employees for good work often. A simple hand-written note or a small, personalized gift shows you appreciate their effort. Foster an environment of recognizing individuals and teams.
Listen at all levels. During hard times, listening to the concerns and fears of employees allows you to ease unnecessary tension and reduce the chance of inaccurate rumors. When talking with employees, don’t just listen to their words, listen at a deeper level. What is their body language showing? What is not being said? Use clarifying statements that follow with a question such as, “I sense that you are upset about these changes. How are you feeling?” Use questions when talking with employees to open up the conversation and encourage discussion.
Coach and develop. Meeting regularly with employees will ensure they are in the loop and understand the changes that are happening around them as well as the direction of the credit union. Coaching and developing employees is generally inexpensive and requires more time than money. Find out the professional goals of each of your employees and meet with them to have an open dialogue about how you can help them get there. Meetings are also a great time to ask employees how you as their manager can help them reach their goals. Approach the meetings as a partnership where both you and the employee discuss expectations, goals and accountability.
Solicit employee input. One of your responsibilities as a leader is to generate ideas and efficiencies for the credit union. In tough economic times, many credit unions are faced with trimming operating costs and reducing expenses. Engage your employees in developing ideas and solicit their input on ways to make processes more efficient and effective. By involving them in the process, they are more apt to buy in to the changes going on around them.
Be open. Show employees the personal side of you. Many new leaders often make the mistake of trying too hard to draw a line between manager and employee and take a very directive style of management. It is important to set expectations for employees, but they also want to see the real you. Connect with your employees on a personal level; ask about their families, interests and vacations. Share some personal information about you as an individual. Employees will connect with you on a deeper level and work hard for you if you show up authentically.
Organizations that have high employee engagement are more productive and profitable. Take a proactive approach to employee engagement by making recognition and communication your top priority.
Laurie J. Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, consultant and founder of Envision Excellence, LLC, Rockville, Md. She was also an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or firstname.lastname@example.org.