When Are Leaders Needed Most?

by Alli Polin on February 24, 2015

When are leaders needed most? When the org culture is ripping apart at the seams

Sue had worked for her client as a full-time consultant for nearly 10 years and for the most part she was happy.  She was doing interesting work with people she liked and didn’t have a lot to complain about most days.  Even when a new leadership team was brought in and she was feeling the pinch of their new direction, she continued to be focused on doing good work up until the day she was fired.  

There are far too many people who will deeply understand Sue’s shock and frustration based on their own similar, challenging and unexpected experience. However, this isn’t really Sue’s story.  It’s really about those that remained and felt the shockwaves hit the already tenuous organizational culture head on. 

Back at the office, word started to spread among the other consultants and employees about Sue’s firing.  Information and reassurances about their positions didn’t come from the top and as a result, fear and misinformation quickly spread, like a cancer from an unknown source, and moved through the rumor mill like lightning.  

Fear began to rule the day as everyone began to wait.  They were waiting for someone to acknowledge that this human being, that was more than a seat warmer for nearly a decade, had disappeared.  Unfortunately, the wait was never-ending and eventually people needed to refocus and mask their worry that they’d be tapped on the shoulder next.  That place, where they all gathered to do great work and make a difference, was now a fear factory. 

I’m not going to debate if it was “fair” the Sue was fired, but instead wonder how could she have been fired without a major blow to the organizational culture?

Communication and the Rumor Mill

On the day that Sue came in to collect her things, everyone quietly watched and wondered what was happening.  There were hushed voices whispering everywhere, but no one with authority was in the mix.  The front line was in disarray while the leadership team ignored their growing concern.  Days turned into weeks and it was as if a giant eraser had come out of the sky and inexplicably erased any trace of Sue’s presence. The team tried to pretend that it was business as usual, but the rumor mill was still going strong.  

When are Leaders Needed Most?  What if…

  • The leadership team acknowledged the fear?
  • The leadership team helped people to refocus on the mission?
  • The leadership team touched base with people to coach, mentor and support their continued success?
  • The leadership team shared that it was not the tip of an iceberg of layoffs, but a one-off unique circumstance?

Of course, none of that happened, but the rest of the story is not a huge surprise either. Sue moved on to a new position with a new company and the fear factory settled into a new status quo filled with doubt, eggshells and disengagement.

In the New Reality:

  • Morale dropped to an all-time low.
  • Top talent began to think about leaving.
  • New talent was reluctant to join the organization once the rumor mill spread into the larger community.
  • Innovation was stifled because it would mean the risk of failure, ridicule or worse, job loss.

A positive, productive and powerful organizational culture takes time and intention to build, but can be trashed in a moment.  

When Sue was fired, the status quo shifted and it’s as if the entire team shuffled three steps to the left. Ultimately, it would seem that firing Sue was a message to the rest of the team of consultants and employees: “Stay in line or it’s time to go.”  Harsh, no matter how you hear it, but this time, instead of a tough all-hands meeting, the message was sent through a game of whisper-down-the-lane with no control or appreciation for how the message landed. 

Is it too late to get back on track?  What do you think?  What advice would you give to the leadership team?

 For coaching, consulting or speaking, Let’s Talk!

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Joy Guthrie February 24, 2015 at 9:12 am

Great post, Alli. Leaders are needed all the time. When you have any time of uncertainty, it’s very important for the leader not to be silent. That is also true for when things are going great.

Reply

Alli Polin February 25, 2015 at 6:41 am

I agree, Joy. There’s never really a good time for leaders to disappear in good times or bad. Unfortunately, when people are left with a fill in the blank moment, they fill it in and are oftentimes wrong with the stories that they make up. Wish this leadership team had stepped up.

Thanks!

Reply

Terri Klass February 24, 2015 at 9:24 am

Wonderful post, Alli!

I agree with Joy that it is particularly important for leadership to be present in times of uncertainty. I saw this first hand with a recent client who closed down a department. People from the other departments kept worrying if they would be next. Work productivity suffered and people started looking for new jobs. In reality, it was just that department that closed and they actually merged many of the folks from the closed department into other areas of the company.

Senior leadership can stop the bleeding if they would only speak up and clarify.

Thanks Alli!

Reply

Alli Polin February 25, 2015 at 6:46 am

Terri,

I can picture what must have happened when the word out that the department was being shut down. It’s never an easy thing to do or message to send but clearly, knowing that people were going to be taken care of was an essential part of the messaging that was missing.

Thanks for sharing that example. It’s stories like that one that will hopefully spark new choices in the future.

Reply

Brenda Lee February 24, 2015 at 9:42 am

Fabulous post, Alli!

After experiencing cut backs in my own company, Communication from the leaders is mandatory. To keep things hush hush only leads the employees to think the worse and come up with their own assumptions. If left unaddressed it will definitely ruin morale as well as possibly hinder the performance of those employees left behind.

Leaders must realize that their employees look to them for guidance, reassurance, and stability. If they aren’t providing that, imo, they are not leaders and should not be in that position.

Thanks for this great post. Really makes me wonder about my current leaders and past.

B

Reply

Alli Polin February 25, 2015 at 6:48 am

People really are looking to the leaders in time of uncertainty and no matter how hard it is to not have all of the answers, leaders need to step up. I’m with you, that if all they’re doing is sticking their head in the ground, they shouldn’t be in a leadership position at all.

Thanks a ton for adding your insights to the conversation!

~ Alli

Reply

LaRae Quy February 24, 2015 at 11:53 am

This is a great post, Alli!

The type of leadership you are talking about happens quite often—it’s easier to let rumors and gossip sift through the ranks than taking the issue head on by talking to people, either one on one, or in a group.

There have been few times when a firing or reorganization was not met with a “can’t talk about it” response. There ARE times when a leader cannot, and should not, divulge all details. At the same time, there are ways to acknowledge what is going on in a way that quelch rumors and the fear that rumors usually generate.

The fear is often worse than the reality….

Reply

Alli Polin February 25, 2015 at 6:53 am

I was a senior leader in a division that was facing big layoffs and as a leadership tea we spent many long hours locked away making what felt like impossible decisions about people’s employment. When asked if layoffs were coming, we were unable to share the full story and had also made a commitment to not lie. Not an easy choice for the leadership team to remain visible through the uncertainty but we needed to be present for the team.

Yes, fear is often worse than the reality and even when it’s not, when we’re treated with respect and compassion, we can get through it no matter what.

Thanks, LaRae!

Reply

Chery Gegelman February 24, 2015 at 11:56 am

Great post Alli!

I agree that leadership needs to be present.

I also believe they have to be credible.

As a mid-level leader I could see the writing on the wall about a pending layoff. When I shared my perspective to an executive, he was so troubled by the comment he went out of his way to set up a special call in an effort to convince me that there was no layoff in sight. …One month later hundreds of people lost their jobs. (While I could give you a list of stories about leaders who had opportunities to help their teams navigate tough transitions – and lied, I believe this particular leader was more out of touch than he was dishonest.)

Reply

Alli Polin February 25, 2015 at 6:59 am

I’m so sad to hear that there are leaders out there that would rather lie than have a hard conversation. At the same time I also have to wonder how they could be so out of touch to not know that 100’s of people were at risk.

I know that this situation has played out far too many times and it makes people immediately look at leadership as deceitful as opposed to on their side.

Thanks for sharing, Chery.

Reply

Chris February 24, 2015 at 12:06 pm

Leaders need to be transparent with their staff. I don’t mean tell them why Sue was fired but acknowledge the event and put some context to it. Fear is contagious.

Reply

Alli Polin February 25, 2015 at 7:00 am

I think that was what the team was really waiting for, Chris. Acknowledgement. No details needed but some reassurance and acknowledgement would have gone a long, long way.

Reply

John Bennett February 24, 2015 at 12:33 pm

Interesting to say the least. I don’t know how many people read the linked post in the first paragraph. It’s clear that from day one apparently until the present, the leadership team had none of the attributes of the new VP in the other post. I’d like to think that if Sue had requested a meeting with the new leadership team to explore responsibilities, contributions, and the new vision moving forward, the “handling” of things – even Sue’s dismissal – would have been different. However, while I believe Sue (if not the leadership team) should have requested the meeting, I’m fairly sure nothing much had been changed… Seems likely to me that the new team had marching orders or a twisted sense of leadership. True leadership would have aligned well with the efforts outlined in the other post.

This new “leadership” team clearly (for me at least) was at best a lousy management team. As you suggest, no surprise how things played out. Sadly, it’s hard for me to see any really positive change for this team. A meeting of all employees that builds on a team acknowledgement of failed actions to seek a new mission and operating direction might eventually work. Replacing the team with yet another team is also not all positive.

I guess the best would be to hire consultants to facilitate efforts to understand the past, facilitate that employee meeting, facilitate plans and efforts moving forward – including any replacement of personnel. I don’t have much hope without a consultant.

Reply

Alli Polin February 25, 2015 at 7:04 am

I think that you’re comments are really insightful, John. You hit on many of the things that I suspect were at play in this situation too. A leadership team that didn’t know how to assert its authority other than a big scary action to keep people in line. They are more likely to lead with fear tactics than anything you’d expect from a strong, confident leader.

I’m sure you won’t be shocked to know that there are no regular meetings as a team, no all hands, no regular 1×1’s with leadership and people generally feel like they’re hanging out there on their own.

Funny enough, I was hoping to be the consultant to work with the leadership team to make some much needed changes and get things back on track. Unfortunately, budgets had another ending in mind.

Thanks for adding so much to the conversation and yes, the example from the link at the top is a 180 from this situation!

Reply

Samantha Hall February 24, 2015 at 4:52 pm

EXCELLENT post Alli.

A friend of mine just faced this situation with a corporate take over a week ago. One day she was hiring outside help for projects only to arrive to work on a Monday to a computer that she was locked out of….and than ‘let go’.

Naturally, other ‘fishy’ things happened leading up to D-day …such as new people from the ‘take over’ company coming in and making abrupt changes that left everyone confused. It was as rude as if someone had barged into YOUR house where you are used to where everything is, what your routine is, and than some STRANGER comes in and starts ordering you around like they were your parent and you are a child who is just supposed to be obedient and fall in line…no questions asked.

These things send a HUGE message to people. It’s dehumanizing, it communicates people are expendable and that management is out for #1 and the people doing the actual work are simply cogs in a wheel.

Welcome to corporate America.

No..it DOESN’T need to be this way.

And interestingly enough….the person who barged in to and started making changes?

Was a WOMAN….

Great post and glad you wrote it!

Reply

Alli Polin February 25, 2015 at 7:12 am

Your comment immediately took me back to the day I found out that the company I was working for had been acquired. We were small and it was a really connected and committed group of people who liked spending time together. From the first moment the new SVP from the super huge company came to visit we knew we were in trouble. Not only was he vying for the top position with the SVP from our company but he had a master plan and wasn’t about to reveal his path too early. It was a nightmare!!

The word you used really does ring true – dehumanizing. When something like that happens you become a name on a spreadsheet to assimilate into the new org in a new position or to cut loose.

I also echo your sentiment… it does NOT need to be that way!! Mergers and acquisitions are incredibly hard but bullying your way forward is not the way to make it work.

The President of my org chose another path… When he found out about the acquisition had me do DiSC training for 100% of employees globally. He wanted people to learn more about who they are, their default style and how to meet people where they are. He was equipping his employees for collaboration and many were ultimately run over by tanks.

Great addition, Samantha! Thanks so much!

Reply

Jon Mertz February 25, 2015 at 7:25 am

Alli,

A great, real post. Echoing what has been said here, silence during uncertainty serves no one and illustrates a lack of leadership. In times of uncertainty and shifts, leaders need to be active, listening, guiding, and being fully present. The organization will not survive and thrive through these changes without active, present leadership. So the advice is: Lead or fail.

Jon

Reply

Alli Polin March 1, 2015 at 6:47 am

Jon,

The two words you use… survive and thrive… reminds me that this organization’s leaders are focused on survival but are not yet ready to focus on helping their people thrive.

With you all the way on lead or fail. That truly is what it will come down to in this instance.

~ Alli

Reply

Karin Hurt February 25, 2015 at 7:55 am

Wow. This gets into a huge conversation about non traditional employees which is so vital. There is far less regulation here and also a fine line between what constitutes a “consultant’ or “contractor” and an employee. It’s not shocking that a new regime would come in and say “enough with the contractors” without considering that the real contribution– after all, they should be temporary.

You post here is HUGE in so many ways. Beyond, the “at what point is someone really an employee” sidenote, I’m also struck by the lack of addressing what’s happening head on and why.

I’m working now with a company on communication during a very difficult time. Before I agreed to help them with their plan, I shared, “Before I start on this, you need to know, I’ve got to come from a place of truth telling… what’s happening and why.

Reply

Alli Polin March 1, 2015 at 6:49 am

Interestingly, they did not say enough with ALL contractors, just this long term one. And a lot of knowledge walked out of the door with her. Even for the FT employees, it was hard to swallow despite knowing, somewhere in the back of their minds, that Sue was still a contractor.

I’m completely with you on how to communicate – with honesty and integrity even when it’s a tough message to swallow. They’re lucky to have you on their team!

Reply

Robert Kennedy February 25, 2015 at 6:01 pm

I’m not sure I understand why some organizations think this is ok. And why would you want to have an organization based on fear where you fire people to “try to get the others in line?”

My goodness. That is a horrible story. Unfortunately, it happens all too often.

The even more unfortunate part is that many companies only look to address this sort of thing after the captain’s quarters goes underwater, even though the ship has been sinking for years.

Reply

Alli Polin March 1, 2015 at 6:53 am

It’s terrible, isn’t it? Leading with fear to keep people in line? Long term it just creates a line to get out the door.

You raise a great point. In this case, the new leadership team was trying to make their mark and show the team who’s in charge now by taking an overly aggressive fear-based stance. Truth is, they were covering up their lack of confidence and their own deepest fears about being able to create a thriving organization. In this case the ship hadn’t been sinking… but instead of putting on a motor to reach new destinations, they took out a pair of rickety oars. Definitely not going anywhere fast.

Huge thanks to you for taking the time to read and to comment too, Robert!

Reply

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ February 26, 2015 at 12:25 pm

Top notch post Alli! You ask a telling question: When are leaders needed most?

Leaders are needed to inspire/move people forward. When they stop doing that, everything can crumble. Slowly or in hidden ways at first yet eventually that org. will “come a tumblin’ down” like pancake.

Face the issues. Inspire. Listen/Communicate. Otherwise, you are not truly a leader.

Love your post. Thanks for all you contribute to the space of leading change!
Kate

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

Reply

Alli Polin March 1, 2015 at 6:56 am

To move people forward… There is such a difference between push and pull. I truly hope that Sue’s departure isn’t the first rock to fall of many yet to come. Unfortunately, this team has not stepped up to the challenge even since this event – I know you have a deep understanding of what’s going on and I’m frustrated by how it really doesn’t have to be that way.

Many thanks for adding your insights, Kate!!

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }