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Special to the Financial Post – Thursday, May. 30 2013 – See in the Financial Post

Being a great leader is easy when the economy is healthy and your organization is profitable. Being a great leader is not so easy when your organization is struggling, you’re laying off employees and you need to reassure the rest who are worried about losing their jobs.

The reality today is that many executives will oversee workforce reductions in response to the need for cost cutting, reorganization or other competitive pressure. While a leader might prefer to quickly move past job losses, doing so without addressing the needs of the workforce could cause serious performance setbacks. Staff members who are fearful of losing their jobs or overwhelmed with the prospect of taking on more responsibilities can quickly become demoralized, stalling productivity.

The true test of an effective leader is one who can successfully steer an organization through a major shakeup while maintaining the confidence and commitment of employees. Here are some ways that resilient leaders guide their workforces past fear and toward success.

Be visible, be honest and be clear about your expectations. Executives who have directed layoffs should inform all remaining employees about the situation as quickly as possible and, preferably, face to face. Effective leaders explain why such a difficult decision was required and acknowledge the impact on staff. They provide an opportunity for employees to express their feelings and they inquire about their concerns. They also steer attention away from fear and uncertainty and toward a renewed purpose by describing clear, achievable, short-term goals (where the organization is going and how he or she envisions it’s going to get there). Early victories are particularly important in difficult times, therefore it’s beneficial to emphasize results hoped for this month rather than next year.

Provide opportunities for employees to take constructive action. Since feelings of helplessness deplete morale, it’s helpful to involve employees in problem solving and productive activities. Some leaders use advisory groups or focus groups, others circulate surveys or hold informal meetings to solicit ideas. They use the feedback they receive to develop change strategies, acknowledging what they learned and keeping employees apprised of the status of their ideas and requests, as well as outcomes.

Keep communicating to build buy-in. Engaging employees in conversation demonstrates respect, which helps them feel more secure and builds morale. Astute leaders therefore create opportunities for discussion. They consult staff members regarding what information and what types of communication they prefer and then communicate regularly and frequently through these vehicles to maintain a dialogue. They use emails, webcasts and other types of electronic media to keep everyone up to date on expectations and progress, as well as to extend and accelerate information flow.

Explain challenges and solutions. Adept leaders understand the importance of creating a shared understanding of an organization’s problems and the fixes that are needed. They address employee concerns and encourage everyone to focus on what they can control — performing their jobs effectively, achieving goals.

Address rumours. Rumours can cause serious damage, not only to employee morale but also to an organization’s reputation. Rumours arise from uncertainty, anxiety and ambiguity. Experienced leaders understand that to contain the circulation of rumours they must diminish their importance and eliminate ambiguity. This requires providing current and reliable information by maintaining continuous communication. Using multiple vehicles (such as town halls, team meetings, manager-direct report discussions, Intranet posts, emails, etc) that consistently convey the same messages helps employees feel informed.

Recognize successes. In the midst of cutbacks, helping people feel valued also strengthens morale. This means sharing wins and success stories and recognizing and thanking employees for their contributions: meeting a goal, securing customers, etc. Perceptive leaders use a variety of activities such as companywide recognition, simple rewards and congratulatory notes to spread positive feelings.

Don’t forget fun. Play, novelty, humour and laughter reduce tension and stress. Easy and inexpensive activities — manager-chef pancake breakfasts, afternoon surprise treats, talent showcases, random awards, potluck lunches, pet days, amusing contests — can unite people and generate creative energy. Insightful leaders ask employees for ideas to make working together more sociable and playful.

There’s nothing like job losses to challenge confidence in leadership. When cutbacks and layoffs are deemed to be necessary, this is when strong leadership strategies are most needed to guide employees past doubt and toward future success.

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