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Managing Uncertainty: How to reduce workplace stress and boost team morale during testing times

From Covid-19 to ongoing economic challenges, living with uncertainty – personally and at work – has become a way of life. But that doesn't mean that we're all comfortable with it. Workplace stress can rise, and team morale take a knock.

Even before the pandemic, 50% of CEOs considered uncertainty the biggest threat to their business (Forbes). Leaders are recognising the importance of equipping their management teams with the guidance, and the data, to drive better relationships with their teams to create clarity and reduce insecurity.

From hybrid working to digital transformations, acquisitions and scaling back, there will always be new situations for businesses to confront. And not all possible threats will have been conceived to feature on a risk register.

But leadership teams can look at ways to manage themselves, manage work and manage others to cultivate confidence and trust in the organisation and each other, whatever life throws up (Leadership Now).

So, how are companies overcoming workplace stress brought on by uncertainty, and how are they keeping up team morale during challenging times? Our panellists – all top 25 in the Best Companies Q1 league tables – shared their approaches during Best Companies Live.

This article shares highlights from the conversation. If you would prefer to watch the full session, please click the video at the top of this page.

managing your staff thought leaders

1. Be authentic… and be kind to yourself!

"Covid taught us that we all had uncertainties," says Andrew Pace, Director of HR, Legal and Company Secretary at UK Power Networks. "The best thing to do is be authentic, be genuine and recognise if you don't know something. And it's fine to be busy, but never be too busy for your colleagues. Put them first."

"Covid showed that there aren't rules for everything; you have to adapt. Your values are key, and supporting colleagues, not telling colleagues, is what comes out stronger. We didn't get everything right but acknowledged when we could have done better."

And for Mark Dibble, Exec Director of People and Corporate Services at NHS BSA, words from his Chief Executive have stayed with him:

"He said, 'It's easy to be nice when things are easy, but it's difficult to be a good person when things are difficult.' Managers and leaders do need to step up to show what they're about. But it's also about giving yourself a bit of space and not being too hard on yourself, recognising that you will get things wrong from time to time. Your colleagues are in exactly the same place as you, so share your thoughts."

2. Delegate so you can focus on strategy

Delegation not only frees up leaders and managers to think strategically in the good times and periods of uncertainty, but it can also give employees a much-needed focus and raise team morale after working in 'survival mode'.

"A lot of my early leadership team are still my existing senior leadership team which is great from a passion for the business point of view," says Matt Woodward, General Manager of leasing company Carparison. "I had to learn in the early days to delegate to them to ultimately free up headspace for me. They can now delegate some of their project work and get the headspace to be more strategic. And they're seeing the fulfilment their teams are getting from being part of developing a certain part of the business."

Brenda McLeish, OBE DL, Chief Executive Officer for training provider Learning Curve Group, believes that employing people who are better than you in certain areas can free up leaders to focus on building and maintaining a positive culture.

"It's about making sure the passion you have is the same in everybody. Somebody can be a really high performer, but if they don't have the same vision, values and passion for the business, they're going to rock the cart. Our 'Purple People' are what makes this a brilliant business, and continuing to inspire them makes my job easier every single day."

manager development thought leaders

3. Help people to develop the skills for confident leadership

Uncertainty can intensify workplace stress for those managers and leaders new to the role or who lack confidence in their abilities to boost team morale, reassure, guide and communicate effectively. For all our panellists, supporting personal development is essential through the good and bad times.

"We've been trading for four years, and we've had to reinvent the business every single year," says Carparison's Matt Woodward. "It's about making sure we've got a clear communication strategy and a big focus on learning and development, supporting teams with the 'why' we need to change strategy and giving them the tools to execute it successfully."

And for the NHS BSA's Mark Dibble, ensuring consistency is essential:

"Managers set the standard across the whole business, so our ‘Manager Essentials’ programme equips everyone with the same set of tools. We focus on areas such as wellbeing and inclusion, recruitment and difficult conversations. Ultimately, we want people to move on for the right reasons, not the wrong ones – like a bad manager."

For Learning Curve Group’s Brenda McLeish OBE DL, it's about supporting people to grow into their roles:

"A lot of our staff have grown with the business. They were great colleagues, and then you make them managers, and you can't expect them to know how to manage. They all have a personal development plan to give them the tools to be great leaders."

And for UK Power Networks, Best Companies’ MC³ manager insights tool has been invaluable. It focuses on managers' behaviours and what their team needs from them.

"As a management team, we believe in being focused, accountable and visible, and the MC³ approach around conversing, considering and caring absolutely supports that", says Andrew Pace. "A successful MC³ is a mark of success. An unsuccessful score is an opportunity to help people, and that's underpinned by the leadership academy work we do."

4. Keep up the communication and make it two-way

Good communication is a vital support during times of uncertainty and helps align everyone on understanding and actions. But to be effective, it must be a two-way process – asking as well as telling.

"In times of uncertainty, you need to get out more, not less," says UK Power Networks' Andrew Pace. "We're out twice a month engaging with our colleagues. At every one of these events, we'll ask how we can support our teams to enable them to do a better job. And we follow up on every single one of these actions. If you build up that trust and they see you get things done, you build better conversations.

"And we recognise the person in the room who's asked us the most difficult question. We want to be held to account; it builds confidence."

And for Learning Curve Group, 'Keeping in Touch (KIT) days aren't just for those on parental leave:

"We use our monthly KIT days to listen," says Brenda McLeish, OBE DL. "We have a representative from every team, no managers, and we give them an update of what's happening in the business – the good and the bad – and we ask them what's their good and bad. What can we do to help? What do you really want to know? They ask some really good questions – often things that result in some really easy changes. We have a really good live conversation which helps improve the business."

For the NHS BSA's Mark Dibble, it's about creating a safe space for leaders too:

"Our virtual 'leadership lounge' is where people can share ideas and thoughts about leadership and management. It's supported by a great team that always adds new content – thought-provoking videos or text. People have shared their fears and triumphs, and it's created a community of leaders who are better for it."

This 'safe space' approach is also important at Carparison, where they've started a 'management amnesty':

"We've been through vehicle supply issues, Covid affecting vehicle delivery and prices going through the roof, so even the best leaders and managers will feel the strain," says General Manager Matt Woodward. "Our management amnesty is like an invisible button. If somebody feels they need to press it, we get together in a room. We can talk about things that are going well, but, more to the point, we can acknowledge when we've not been self-aware and may have frustrated a colleague or get people to tell us when we have. We'd like to think that we've got a level of trust to do that."

American educator and businessman Stephen Covey said, "If there's one thing that's certain in business, it's uncertainty." Our panellists, accepting of this notion, have shown that being open, listening to employees, building skills and confidence and keeping focused can help everyone navigate uncertain times.

Do your managers have the skills to motivate and lead through the good times and the bad? Do you want to be able to offer actionable, supportive feedback to help them achieve and build their confidence? Try the powerful MC³ manager insights tool; it's management development, done differently.



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