Managing teams in periods of change

After a year of upheaval for the UK, Chris Underwood explains how leaders can effectively guide their businesses through unpredictable times

Credit: Abel Mitja Varela/Morsa Images/Getty Images

Whether it was Liz Truss’s exit from Downing Street after just seven weeks, or gaining a new monarch after 70 years – change has become the status quo in today’s Britain. Not forgetting the aftermath of the pandemic, shaky economy, war in Ukraine, ever-changing technology and a climate crisis looming, leaders must now become leaders of change. The revolving door of unprecedented scenarios presents new daily challenges for businesses, and political, economic and technological uncertainty makes this a difficult landscape for leaders to navigate. But how can leaders prepare teams for the inevitable change that is born of unpredictability?

Building resilience starts from the top

Resilient people enable companies to weather macro-environmental challenges. But resilience alone is not enough to lead teams to face and swiftly respond to unforeseen obstacles. ‘Resilient agility’ refers to a more complex leadership trait, combining essential attributes for embracing change: adaptability, fortitude, robustness, proactiveness and the grit to see things through. Recruiting and developing leaders with this trait will cultivate the same behaviour in others in the organisation, developing teams that are more accepting and adaptable to new ways of working.

Furthermore, leaders with a high level of emotional intelligence (EQ), have the capacity to develop trusting relationships to gain support from teams and stakeholders. In periods of uncertainty, trusted leaders can quickly act on information and implement new ways of working as their teams believe in their ability to make good decisions. Ultimately, a blend of resilient agility and EQ makes high-calibre leaders of change, as they empathise with employees and help them to adapt while keeping corporate goals and objectives front of mind.

Shared vision is earned, not imposed

Leaders may have clear sight of where they want the organisation to reach but they cannot expect instant buy-in from others, especially following tough periods of uncertainty.

Leadership styles that are based on self-righteousness and respond to scepticism by asserting power and ultimatums will likely lead to non-compliance. Traditional views of ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ forget that leadership is contextual. Executing vision takes multiple agents. Regardless of how impactful a leader’s vision might be, it is useless without the backing of a team that understands and supports it. The old adage ‘we’re all in this together’ still rings true. If leaders successfully unite people under the same purpose, they will experience greater internal engagement and support in their decision making.

This is achieved by building a sense of community, promoting collaboration and nurturing internal relationships, which takes time. However, length of tenure does not guarantee shared vision and the same challenge can face leaders who are new to the organisation or are long-standing, seasoned leaders. Instead, it is earned. Leaders must build a narrative and take people on the journey to gain their understanding and trust. Be prepared to repeat this many times along the way to maintain engagement and win over new stakeholders.

Creating a change culture  

Continuous reinvention and revaluation are essential for business survival in the current climate. Inevitably, with change and uncertainty comes a natural human response: resistance. Most people are averse to risk and potential failure, which happens more as organisations increasingly experiment with new technology and approaches in a rapidly changing and disruptive environment. This can leave teams unsettled, and it is leadership’s role to manage this.

To build a sense of security and ensure employees feel valued, open communication is key. Half the battle is to encourage staff to confidently voice opinions and concerns, but it also requires strong leaders to interpret the feedback and decide what to act on before communicating the way forward. Honesty is crucial. Recruiting candidates who are unafraid to ask ‘silly questions’, such as ‘why do you do it that way?’, will encourage a culture based on curiosity and innovation. In turn, teams that actively challenge the status quo and experiment with different ways of working will improve practices and be better prepared for future change. After all, change presents opportunities for growth.

The outcome?

Strong leaders of change prioritise activity that delivers against fundamental business objectives. They understand that goals such as growth, profit and expansion can be reached multiple ways but require compliance and enthusiasm from teams. The culture they shape will be risk tolerant, experimental and innovative, and challenges will be viewed as opportunities throughout the team.

Regardless of the context or complexity of an unprecedented event, if leaders can set these foundations to manage and protect teams, the business can capitalise on hurdles and be better prepared for future change.

Chris Underwood is founder and managing director of Adastrum Consulting