A regular reader asked me to write something about helping a team as they go through times of change.
Change is inevitable, and yet it takes us by surprise, and creates uncertainty about the present and the future. As a leader, I’ve been lucky enough to be in charge of taking teams and organizations through exciting and challenging times, as well as some sad changes. Major relocations of offices and labs. Big shake-ups in institutional and corporate leadership. Installs of new equipment and computer systems. In my experience, the hardest changes to manage involve changes in team members. The uncertainty associated with a change in personnel – for the person leaving, the new arrival, and those remaining – is complicated, as it affects individuals differently, and on many levels.
To maintain a sense of calm and comfort during a transition, here are some things I’ve learned to do as a leader of teams big and small.
Be there. To be relied upon, you have to be reliable. Similarly, to be a trusted leader, you need to be present all the time, building relationships of trust with team members. If you only show up when things are going wrong, people won’t know to trust you to lead them through the difficult times. (People might even start to associate your presence with difficulty, and become wary whenever you do show up.) Good leaders spend time with their teams often, taking part in daily work life as much as possible. This helps to know who’s working on what and what the ongoing issues are, so when a challenge arises, you can contribute to or direct responses from a position of knowledge, strength and empathy.You should also be prepared to pitch in when and where you can (remembering that sometimes your “help” might be just the opposite of help). If you’re capable of taking on some of the work, then do that. It may barely make a dent in the workload, but it can make a big difference in morale.
Respond to change appropriately, and in a timely manner. Knee-jerk reactions to change can often make a bad situation worse, introducing more change and uncertainty and undermining trust. Good leaders take some time to consider the options, the impact, and the hidden angles or features (see below re: opportunity) and make sure the team knows that’s what they’re doing (you’re not ignoring the problem, but you’re taking some time to make a good decision). You don’t want to be stuck in analysis paralysis, but you do want to make good considered decisions in responding to change, so that you get it as close to right as possible the first time. When implementing a response, be sure to be clear about the what and the why, and if there are some things you’re unsure of, say so.
Be honest and open. When change is happening outside the group, people can feel uncertain or left out (“how come we’re always the last to know?”). Leaders need to recognize when this might be happening – they may be up to their ears in the direct impacts of such changes, but they still need to be aware of the potential effects on teams and individuals. Keep in mind, some information truly is “need to know”. Providing what information you have and are allowed to share in a timely manner (and to the entire team at the same time, not just to those who you happen to see) can go a long way to mitigating the distress of uncertainty or of feeling left out.
This is a tricky balance. You can’t always tell everyone everything all the time. Sometimes, you can’t see that someone needs or wants to know about something. When you discover this, you need to remedy it by communicating immediately and directly. But if you work at maintaining those good trusting relationships with people, they should recognize that either they can ask you directly about what they want to know, or they will trust that it’s not something they need to know.
Never, ever lie. If you don’t know something, or cannot share something, say so. If possible, say why. If you’re speculating or giving an opinion rather than a fact, make extra sure that this is clear. This can be very difficult for a leader to do, but if you have good relationships with people, they can and will trust you, and vice versa. Don’t ruin that.
Be firm but fair. Make sure team members know where they stand. It is important in building trust with teams that the work environment and culture include clear rules and procedures for the way things work. But also: rules and procedures need to consider the human beings involved, and be fair in recognizing that. “Firm” means that people know what to expect. “Fair” means that they can also expect consideration and empathy.
Be human. While it’s important that leaders be in control of themselves and the situation, they shouldn’t be automatons. You shouldn’t be overly emotional or over-familiar with people, but you are still a human being who can have bad days and frustrations. It’s okay for people to see that; it helps with building trust and camaraderie. Just make those times the exceptions rather than the rule, as you need people to follow your directions when times are tough.
Don’t assume – ask. Just because no one is coming to talk to you, don’t assume they don’t want to, or don’t have any questions or concerns. A good leader makes varied opportunities for people to engage. Management-by-walking-around is much maligned, but it is an important step in being accessible. Open-doors are also good, and snacks never go wrong. Make time to be available to people for open-ended questions and discussion. When attending a team meeting, always bring a message with you as an icebreaker, in case there are no questions to start with, and accept and answer every question or comment openly, directly and fairly.
Look for opportunity within challenge.
“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger--but recognize the opportunity.” JF Kennedy.
While the above quote is wrong, the idea is good – look for the opportunity in any challenge. When working through all changes, it is important to look at all sides, good and bad. Being prepared for change from any quarter can help minimize disruption and maximize chances for success.
Years ago, I received news about success on a significant grant for our centre. When I told the lead investigator, the reply was like a splash of cold water: “Now we have to do it.” While I initially resented the cynicism, I’ve come to appreciate that that flip-side was very real: this new funding came with considerable changes and challenges, which were not to be taken lightly. (Ultimately, I did also learn that a moment or two to celebrate a success can go a long way to improving team spirit, and still feel that putting the cynicism on hold for a day would not have gone amiss. See below: celebrating success.)
This doesn’t mean being overly sunny or optimistic, ignoring the challenge while looking for the opportunity. To me, this means being pragmatic and realistic, keeping an eye on the challenge while also looking for the opportunity.
Celebrate successes and positive changes. Reasons to celebrate are easy to find. They need to be meaningful and real, but once found they should be celebrated. Work is work, and it is easy for people to get bogged down and stuck on things that aren’t working well, and they forget sometimes about progress and successes. Leaders should be sure to acknowledge and celebrate success. Did a trainee successfully defend their thesis? Congratulations! Did a project get a new grant? Well done! Did the team reach a milestone of a kind? Yay – have cake! Is someone moving on to a new job? Way to go! This last one can be hard sometimes, as a person leaving the team can sometimes be seen a just a challenge – all the work to be reassigned, team mates left behind – but it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the success of that person who’s leaving. Regardless of the circumstances of their change, they contributed to your team and they deserve respect, appreciation and support. And the remaining members need to see that you will treat everyone respectfully.
Overall, the keys are to be consistent, trustworthy, and empathetic. Being a “helicopter” leader – swooping in, making big pronouncements, using hollow promises – is ineffective. Being a leader means being present through good times and bad, rolling up your sleeves and pitching in, being reliable in word and deed, and balancing challenge and opportunity.
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A while back, I wrote about deadlines as a necessary part of managing projects, especially research proposals with firm submission dates and times. Having recently completed another mammoth grant application project (fingers crossed – results in a few weeks), I’ve recognized some distinct levels of strength that can help in both recognizing the need for and then establishing the right type and level of deadline.
The first of these is the lightest – the deadline of convenience. This is a loose internal deadline, established to encourage progress but not really tied to any external requirement. The convenience deadline recognizes basic courtesies like evenings, weekends and holidays as being down time, and is associated with the early stages of a proposal project, when many other elements (scope, budget, team) are still evolving. The convenience of this deadline is typically linked to the schedule of the deadline setter – what is best for them in this process – and guided by the overall tenor of the team: how much encouragement versus freedom do they need at this stage.
The next level up is middleweight – the deadline of dependence. Linked to other elements, such as institutional deadlines, anticipated time required for formatting, quotes, or signatures, or other key events like conference presentations or key meetings, these deadlines indicate the dependence of other things on this work (something else needs this to get done before it can proceed), or the dependence of this work on those other things (this project needs that other thing). In proposal development, there are a lot of dependence deadlines. The budget cannot be completed until the proposal body is written. The references cannot be finalized until the writing is done. The summary sections need the main proposal to be finished before thy can be written. (Notice a pattern here?) The signatures cannot be secured until there’s a substantial enough document and a reliable budget number.
This middleweight level is where deadline setting becomes both art and science. These deadlines cascade and link to one another like an elaborate acrobatic act, overlapping and connecting pieces of the project until it all comes together as a completed thing. The reality is much messier than that, of course – more like the assemblage of a multi-course dinner with no recipes. There will be adjustments throughout, to both deadlines and content (scope change), but the goal is still the same: the completion of the project.
In the case of a grant application or project proposal, there is also the heavyweight level – the deadline of consequence. Usually established by external stakeholders, these deadlines are immovable, with the consequence of complete project failure if they are not met: there is no coming back from missing a proposal submission deadline.
Deadlines of consequence can also occur within the project itself. There are sometimes firm, non-negotiable deadlines on things such as internal approvals, hiring opportunities, and vendor quotation expiry dates. Other key dates exist as milestones – fiscal year end, for example – that can become deadlines for spending or reporting. These should not be taken lightly, as there is little to no recourse when these are missed.
True project management would have you build the schedule forwards, determining the estimated time for each task or activity, considering the dependencies and relationships, constructing a critical path, and then calculating the completion date. More often, the reality is that schedule development is best done by looking at that ultimate deadline of consequence (the submission deadline) and working backwards to populate the schedule with dates and associated tasks that are needed.
Thinking about these various levels of deadline can help when considering building deadlines into your project schedule. Where are the deadlines you cannot miss (consequence)? Where should you put the ones that contribute to bringing the project elements together (dependence). And where can you put a few to best support and enable the team and the project to be successful (convenience)? For each deadline on the schedule, make sure you know which kind it is, so that you know how flexible (or not) it is and what else it is connected to. By keeping track of progress and activities against these deadlines, and adjusting as possible throughout, you’ll have the best chance of successful completion within the time available.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.