How to prepare your team for turbulence

Like an airplane pilot warning passengers of bumps ahead, a CIO can prepare teams for tough times. Here are five strategies
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Consider the significant – sometimes seismic – shifts taking place in IT organizations across industries. Some organizations are reworking process for the DevOps age. Others are regrouping in cross-functional teams, rethinking cybersecurity, or learning to run twice as fast.

All those shifts create personal and group angst. However, when IT leaders see instability coming, they can help people brace for turbulence.

“There’s plenty of fear, uncertainty, and doubt circulating out there,” says Christine Comaford, author of "Power Your Tribe: Create Resilient Teams In Turbulent Times." At the same time, she says, CIOs can take several actions to help their organizations to not only survive periods of uncertainty but also thrive. She shares five strategies:

1. Brainstorm about possible difficulties

While IT leaders can’t see into the future, veteran CIOs know to expect the unexpected – and think through responses to various difficult scenarios.

Arthur Hu, CIO at Lenovo,  anticipated turmoil during an IT and business transformation. So Hu has his project and program teams engage in scenario planning, outlining the issues they might encounter along with the likelihood and potential impact of each. The goal is to prevent the most likely difficulties, though that’s not always possible. Having thought through a variety of problems ahead of time has value nonetheless, he says. “Given we know there will be uncertainty and don’t know what form that will take, the best plan is to give the team the right direction with a good understanding of all the potential outcomes,” Hu says.

2. Increase transparency

There’s a reason people appreciate it when an airline pilot lets them know to expect some bumps. “It shows that it's not a surprise. He or she has command of the situation and is making the right preparations to lead to safety,” says Howard Seidel, senior partner at C-level career advisory firm Essex Partners.

[ Are you botching change management? See our related story, What everyone gets wrong about change management. ]

CIOs do their employees no favors by keeping them in the dark about difficulties around the corner, he says. “Advance warning of a bumpy period helps employees understand that the leaders are anticipating market conditions and not just passively experiencing them,” Seidel says.

3. Empower and involve

Giving employees more control over the response to circumstances soothes anxiety. Managers  “need empowerment in any change process, through access to information and involvement in decision making,” says Gaylyn Sher-Jan, vice president and chief people officer of Boeing’s unmanned aircraft systems business Insitu.

Pushing decision making down into the organization can elevate individual performance and enable more agile, self-directed actions, particularly in stressful times, adds Comaford. When CIOs stop giving orders and start asking questions, they can transform the experience of turbulence from “fear and uncertainty into empowerment and ownership,” Comaford says.

4. Provide relevance and meaning

While change has become the new normal, skeptics come with the territory, says Seidel. “In many organizations, employees can be resistant, defensive, and even fearful about embracing new ways of doing things," he says. "Employees who haven’t bought into the new ways can find subtle and not-so-subtle ways of sabotaging the efforts.”

Link a potentially painful change to both organization and individual benefit to create buy-in. “Employees need to understand how their personal situations will be better for embracing an effort,” Seidel says.

IT leaders can help employees make new meaning from a turbulent situation, adds Comaford. “Fear stops us in our tracks. Reframing change as how growth happens keeps us moving forward.”

5. Monitor and manage engagement

Give the IT organization the sense that you are in this with them, to convey to people that they are safe, that they belong, and that they matter. Such feelings are essential to human beings, particularly in times of discord or distress.

They’re so vital in the workplace that Comaford created a tool called the SBM (Safety, Belonging, Mattering) Index for C-level leaders to help gauge employee engagement. IT leaders can become so consumed with growth, transformation, speed, or whatever the current strategic objective is that they lose sight of the impact on individual employees. Comaford’s SBM Index asks employees questions about factors such as how they are treated when they make mistakes and how comfortable they are trying new approaches (measures of safety); the understanding of their performance expectations and the level of motivation they get from the organization’s mission and values (measures of belonging); and whether the feel appreciated, have a clear path, and feel like they’re making a difference (measures of mattering).

The goal: Find out what people are feeling and keep your finger on the pulse of each department and the organization overall, Comaford says. Having a consistently communicated mission that makes employees feel a part of the organization, even in times of great disruption, helps.

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.