Weathering An Organizational Storm

$16-billion dollar weather disasters have affected the US this year, from January – October. And the year isn’t over. We all knew someone, or personally experienced these events – from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria to the more recent wildfires in California. These traumatic events have taken a physical and emotional toll on many.

Living in Florida, hurricane season is one we plan for and anticipate every year. But always with a wait and see mentality. This year may be quiet, with little impact to our homes, or it may be the year where we experience the storm of the century. Having just watched the unexpected impact of hurricane Harvey to our neighbors across the Gulf, here in Florida, we watched the path of hurricane Irma with great anxiety. In the days before hurricane Irma was scheduled to make landfall, Governor Scott called for a State of Emergency. The skies were blue, social and professional events went on as scheduled, but the environment was charged. Water became scarce in the stores. Group chats permeated social media. We all accessed the local news channels and apps with more frequency as we sought the most up-to-date information on the direction of the storm, and the potential impact to different regions of the state of Florida. Who would be impacted, how badly, and when?

Individuals began to be distracted from their day-to-day as they considered what would be the best decision for their family and those they cared about. Some took to the stores, others to the road. Emergency personnel prepared their plan for how to take care of those who stayed or had nowhere else to go. Anxiety was high, but always seemed to settle a bit once a decision was made and a course of action was committed to.

Living in the Tampa Bay area, my family and I made the decision to ‘hunker down,’ along with many of our neighbors, and began the process of preparing for Irma’s pending landfall – specific location was still to be determined – and to protect those we cared for. I decided to put my professional responsibilities at work to the side for a few days while focusing on the days that were to follow, but it occurred to me that as we were preparing for the storm, many of my clients were dealing with similar situations inside their organizations, weathering storms of their own.

Whether navigating acquisitions like Amazon’s provocative purchase of Whole Foods or Coach’s announcement to purchase Kate Spade, strategically managing the effect of leadership transitions, or shifts in market strategy requiring new or different skillsets, such as moving from a face-to-face to a digital strategy, or serving customers in a brick-and-mortar fashion, versus serving them in their own home – organizations across the US and beyond are experiencing mini-corporate traumas. And many people in those organizations are suffering.

In the professional work we do to support leaders and their organizations through such transitions, we study the real impact to people. What can they do when faced with impending change? And what can leaders in those organizations do to help?

Step 1. Decide and Commit

With forces like Mother Nature, there is little certainty as to who will be affected, and in what way. We seek as much information from our local news outlets and local leadership as we can get our hands on, but that intel could change dramatically before the next scheduled update. Therefore, we must make decisions with the information we have, to the best of our ability.

With hurricane Irma, I stayed abreast of the most up-to-date information I could about the storm, and consulted several reputable sources. As you determine how to weather your storm, first gather as much information as possible, and then make a decision and commit to a course of action. For example, ask yourself, am I going to stay and ride this out or am I going to leave? Once a course of action is committed to, everyone can begin to focus their mental energy and enthusiasm in a single direction.

Ernest Shackleton, a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic, served as a role model for how a commitment to one’s mission can present an opportunity to exhibit the effect of leadership decisions and behaviors on a team. While he may have had to shift his mission along the way as he received new information, he was able to effectively lead his team and keep them focused every step of the way.

Step 2. Prepare and Focus

Once a decision is made, take some time to strategically plan for how you will carry out that decision, so that you are prepared to execute. One of my clients was a leader within a company that was recently acquired. As the Director of Learning & Development, she felt it was her responsibility to stay and help take care of others who wanted to do the same.  Even without promise of a new job, she made a plan for how she would spend her days with the company and how she would manage through ambiguity. She sought to define what resources she would need, what support she had access to, and what support she would have to give, and took inventory of what resources she still had access to – with respect to people and budget. Her preparation to carry out her mission, or decision to stay, resulted in a roadmap of activities that engaged every member of her team in a meaningful way, and empowered everyone to have some control over their career, to the best of their ability, while still employed by the legacy company.

While waiting for the storm to arrive, or massive change to occur, harness the mental energy of your team and help them – and yourself – to focus on the next action you can take in support of your decision.

Give everyone a job. As my family waited for the hurricane to take it’s path, we worked to keep our anxieties low and our spirits high. The adults took advantage of the time to prepare new recipes and cook good food, the children got creative in designing Irma’s Lounge, or our safe room in the event we would need it later in the evening.

Engage, enable and energize your team to create a sense of control and to help the team focus. Don’t allow enough space for rumors or negative energy to overwhelm, but rather create opportunities for the team to engage with one another. Fill silence with communication. And vary the communication. When preparing for a hurricane to make landfall, it’s enticing to want to watch hurricane coverage all. day. long. But a quick check in with yourself, you note the rising levels of anxiety and stress. It sure feels good to take a break and watch something light (Impractical Jokers, anyone?), or play a few rounds of Uno.

Take care of you, too. By modeling well-being practices, you not only do good for your own mind and body, but you eliminate second-hand stress for all those around you. Think about the classic instruction we all receive when preparing to take-off on an airplane, “secure your own mask before assisting others.” If you haven’t taken care of yourself, you won’t have the clarity or energy to help those around you.

One way to intentionally take care of yourself is to practice mindfulness, if even for a few minutes at a time. Take a moment to take a breath. The field of psychology gives us research that focusing the mind promotes calmness, reduces anxiety, and increases productivity. And more and more business examples tell us that it matters to our organizational performance too.

Finally, make time to connect with others. Connection breeds empathy. Whether part of a neighborhood preparing for a storm, or part of a team preparing for a change, there is a common experience that should be acknowledged and shared. Hurricane Irma brought several of our neighbors together around a dining room table to share the remnants of our freezers and refrigerators – before we all lost power. Let this organizational change bring your teams together through team huddles or fireside chats, and allow people to ask questions, share concerns, and get to know each other better.

Step 3. Recover and Refocus

Just because the storm has passed, doesn’t mean life goes back to normal. There is no such thing as going back to the way things were. There may be debris in your path, and there can be an emotional crash after holding it together for so long. Allow yourself and your team to go through a period of recovery and reflection.

Regardless of whether the storm has a negative or positive impact, emotions after change can range from gratitude, to frustration, to disappointment, to neutral. While we were incredibly grateful our experience with the hurricane resulted in less damage than predicted, I would be lying to say we weren’t the least bit disappointed. In some ways it felt like we expended all that energy and emotion of preparing – for nothing. But the experience certainly gave us pause and time to reflect. It can be helpful to check in with those around you and to have a shared conversation focused on the following questions:

  • What needs to be repaired? Where do we need to focus our resources and our energy?
  • What did we learn? Would we seek different information next time? Would we make a different decision? Were there other resources that we wished we had?
  • Where do we go from here? What is the new course of action that we must or want to embrace?

The only thing that is constant is change. – Heraclitus

We may not be able to predict Mother Nature’s next threat, or an organization’s next acquisition, but we do know that change will happen again. And we have control over how we weather that storm. Seek opportunities to build your individual, and collective capacity for navigating change.

Photo by Loren Gu on Unsplash

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Shawn Overcast

Partner at gothamCulture
Shawn Overcast is a respected leader in leadership and organizational development, connecting people processes to business impact. She has over 15 years experience working in complex human capital departments spanning a variety of sectors and industries, and across the scale of small-mid size companies and global, Fortune 100 organizations.