From panic to performance: how leaders can help teams negotiate tumultuous times


So it’s all over – and the Conservatives have defied all election predictions to win enough seats to form a small majority in the Commons.

Added on 11 May 2015 by Roger Delves

David Cameron

So it’s all over – and the Conservatives have defied all election predictions to win enough seats to form a small majority in the Commons.

It was a night of sweeping change, that has left people variously in states of either shock or euphoria. Three leaders resigned. Three parties need new heads, new visions, new teams. One, the Lib Dems, were decimated, with Cabinet Ministers losing seats in a manner unprecedented since 1945.

Indeed, this was perhaps more than change. It was potentially a seismic recalibration of the political landscape, though others could argue it was a sad return to the two party politics from which we thought we were escaping. It will take time for the dust to settle and a balanced view to emerge from the chaos of the last few weeks. That's as true for the governing party as for the losers. Governing with a small minority and a vociferous back bench is very different to governing with a coalition partner and a large majority. Governing a united nation is different to leading a divided one. 

Nevertheless, life goes on. So what are the first moves a leader – whether in business or politics – needs to make after a period of huge uncertainty to restore a sense of normality and get people focusing on what’s important?

Be clear about the vision

We simply never know how a major change or new strategy will pan out.  The details emerge over time as people take on new roles and project teams are formed to drive initiatives forward.  But even if the detail is fuzzy or unknown, people need to be clear about the overall vision.  If they can see the big picture and understand what the organisation is trying to achieve, they will be better able to make sense of what is happening, what they need to prioritise and how they can make the best possible personal contribution. That's why David Cameron's remarks on the day after the election, like them or not, were so important: they captured the vision. That's why Nick Clegg's resignation speech will be played again and again, as will Jim Murray's. These defeated leaders sought to establish immediately a vision to inspire their parties through a difficult short term future. That's the opportunity Nigel Farage seemed to miss as he made his equivocal remarks.

Create shared goals and objectives

During times of change and uncertainty, people tend to hunker down in their silos, doing whatever it is they have always done. In the absence of any clarity about the future direction, they focus solely on their own goals rather than thinking about the bigger picture. As the future becomes clearer and new roles and responsibilities are allocated, it’s important to bring people together to create shared goals.  Clear goals give people a sense of where they need to direct their efforts – and if those goals are shared, people are much more likely to collaborate and support each other. 

Model best behaviour

At a time when it’s important to get up and running with a new strategy fast, leaders need to make sure they are modelling the kind of behaviour they want to encourage in their teams. Acting in a collaborative, rather than competitive way, being open and transparent, asking as well as telling, being willing to give up some things in order to hold onto other things – these are all behaviours that will help to engage people, win over stakeholders and get new initiatives off the ground as painlessly as possible. People will respect a manager who ‘walks the talk’ and gives a clear lead during tumultuous times.

Prioritise communication

Communicate, communicate, communicate is the golden rule – even at times when there may not be much to say.  As an organisational restructure or new strategy starts to unfold, people will naturally have many questions.  If there is no communication, they will speculate, gossip and come up with their own conclusions – all of which wastes time and detracts them from the important work they should be doing.  Leaders need to give people regular updates, both formal and informal, and be prepared to engage in dialogue and answer questions, even if the situation is not clear-cut. The more people feel they are being kept in the loop, the more they will feel involved and be committed to making change happen. Leaders must also continually reiterate the vision. A common mistake is to think that once it is said, it is remembered. That isn't the case - and in any event, it is not enough that visions are remembered: they must become ingrained. 

Helping people adapt to a new scenario is always a challenge, particularly if it one they were not expecting.  The most successful leaders are those who can help their people negotiate through chaos and make sensible decisions with the bigger picture in mind. It will be interesting to see what steps Cameron takes in the next few days towards his goal of “making Great Britain greater” – and to see how the other political parties regroup and start to recover from their election disappointments.