One night driving home from work I began thinking about the challenges for leaders in the workplace given the context of a tough economic climate, and the pressure upon the public sector to continue to find significant financial savings. For some reason it made me think about my family’s relationship with our new cat Marty. He joined us from a pet rescue centre. When we visited he had a lovely temperament and seemed comfortable in his familiar surroundings mixing well with the other cats and seemed to get on well with all of our family. A week later he joined the household. So whilst we had prepared a home for him and were ready to welcome him in to our lives – he was terrified: a mature cat in unfamiliar surroundings. Suddenly his world had been turned upside down. Everything had changed, and we set about helping him to adjust to his new world. We did our best to stabilise his environment and allow him to get used to his space, and to each of us. Building a trusting relationship with him and building a new routine were essential building blocks. Building upon positive experiences, we rewarded and supported him to help him find his feet: to adjust to a different environment and become part of our family life remains an ongoing journey.
Marty’s world being turned upside down through no fault of his own reminded me of the experience that most of us are going through right now. A number of people that I have spoken to and those that I have coached in all circles of my life are having to think the unthinkable. Some have already lost their job; others are worried that they might be next to go. Others are having to prepare to take some tough decisions that will affect the livelihood of other people. For a number this will be the first time that they have had to take such decisions about service reductions and headcount reductions on this scale. It is a really uncomfortable feeling for most, and one that they do not feel too well prepared to handle. Sir John Whitmore, the renowned business and executive coach often talks about what Timothy Gallwey coined the ‘inner game’ – the biggest driver for individuals not taking action is fear or self doubt –the inner voice inside our head. As a leader in the workplace, particularly in times of uncertainty, it is important to recognise and acknowledge this feeling in one’s self, and in others, and give support to those around you who will be experiencing the same emotions. The real challenge is that most people see such feelings as a weakness and something to hide, particularly in times of pressure or insecurity, rather than to acknowledge it and work to improve their own sense of well being and personal performance.
The financial pressure facing the public sector is almost certain to cause a radical review of the approach to the way that services are delivered to service users and customers. This will require a change in the way that organisations are structured with a likely move away from professional silos and towards flatter hierarchy. As leaders is it critical to remain focused upon providing an environment in which people feel able to do their best and feel supported, even in difficult circumstances. Whilst this is likely to be a difficult leadership challenge it is one that must be grasped with both hands.