Navigating Organizational Turbulence: The Impact of Leadership During Tough Times

You might not be able to control the instability. But your response will make a difference to your organization’s ability to thrive.

“We expect some turbulence, please make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened.” That is a common phrase one hears when flying. What does it mean? The pilot has gotten some information that the conditions outside the aircraft are potentially unstable and somewhat unpredictable. Information that perhaps was sent to the pilot by a plane that recently flew the same route. So, to help ensure the safety of the passengers the pilot is asking them to make sure their seatbelts are fastened, an approach that will also help the crew deal with the uncertain conditions ahead. The pilot doesn’t know for sure if the plane will suddenly drop, shake, or pitch to the side and those without their seatbelts fastened could be thrown around, risking injury and adding to the chaos that the turbulence can bring. If everyone has their seatbelts securely fastened that can reduce one type of uncertainty, reducing the potential risk to passenger well-being.

In many physical systems turbulence and its derivatives represent variability or uncertainty regarding how the system may function or how it may impact other objects or processes. It means that the system is likely operating in a suboptimized fashion. Turbulence in a stream of gas, for instance, may mean that the gas won’t flow as smoothly as it should for maximum performance and flow-through capacity of the system. It means that there is variability and increased uncertainty in the system. It signifies lower levels of control, predictability of performance, and outcome.

Think for a minute about how variance or performance turbulence could affect an organization’s customers and sales performance.

Say I was a customer of a fast-food chain. When I visit one location of the chain the French Fries are served just out of the fryer: fresh, hot and thick. At a different location of the same chain the French Fries are old, cold, and thin. The chain develops a reputation for inconsistency in the quality of their food. And due to that reputation, the chain will have less control over their sales performance because of inconsistency in their product. What if that inconsistency wasn’t even by location, but existed within each location? That would represent an even worse case of inconsistency, because customers couldn’t even count on a certain location to deliver as expected and likely result in poorer sales performance still.

How likely would it be for you to stay at a hotel chain if during one stay the room was fine and the next time the bed was uncomfortable, the room dirty, and the water in the shower was cold? You would probably want to take your business to a chain that provided a consistent level of quality and performance for your money. There has even been some research that supports the idea that consistency is more important that absolute quality levels, in terms of customer satisfaction, if the delivered product or service is deemed of good value. Customers can compensate for flaws in certain situations, if the consistency is there, especially if there is consistency on what is deemed as critical variables. It is more difficult to compensate in an inconsistent environment. And certainly, consistent high-quality wins out.

Say you had a manager who had inconsistent methods and moods. One day the manager is ranting and raving, the next day the manager is supportive and helpful, and the next day back to ranting and raving. Each interaction was unpredictable; it was uncertain and turbulent. How productive and effective is that environment? People will spend their time working to manage their manager, rather than performing at as high a level as possible.

When measuring the organizational environment that employees experience, it would not be unusual to find variance in employee responses to survey questions by department, business unit, or locations.

Sometimes these differences are rather small and other times they can be quite significant. At times the differences are so large that two different employees, working at two different locations or business units, might have such vastly different experiences that it’s like working at separate companies. An employee in location or business unit A has a completely different work experience than an employee in location or business unit B. That inconsistency, variance, or turbulence in the organizational environment has also been shown to lead to sub-optimal performance. Organizations that can deliver a consistent experience across the entire entity have been shown to outperform those with turbulence or inconsistency. The variance that we see in the data is indicative of an overall environment that is less predictable, less consistent, and not optimized.

Sometimes this variation or turbulence is left alone on purpose, such as when an organization operates as a holding company and the various components are left to their own devices and go their separate ways. The data indicates that organizations should take a hard look at what they are potentially giving up in terms of attracting and keeping highly skilled people, and fully utilizing the talent they have, by allowing the variations in culture, experiences for staff and opportunity. There are also some who believe that intentionally allowing chaos, a type of which can be defined as variance or turbulence, to flourish within an organization drives innovation and spurs creativity by keeping everyone on edge. It does no such thing. Chaos by definition is chaotic and leads to poorer not greater performance. And keeping people on edge, concerned about what the future holds for them, will certainly not spur them on to greater levels of creativity.

Environments that organizations operate in will be turbulent; they will exhibit variance. Guaranteed. Events outside of the organization will impinge. Economies will change, technology will change, competitors will change, politics will change, and societal events will occur. It is inevitable. You can think of the organization as trying to be a rock in a turbulent stream, fending off variance that aims to erode it. And as we all know eventually the water wins out. Unless of course organizations can define themselves, or redefine themselves for new emerging environments, taking advantage of their strengths to withstand the turbulence that they will endure. How can that be done? Well, fasten your seatbelts and let’s explore.

Ensure impactful DEI&B initiatives.

Hiring and promoting people with differing backgrounds, experiences, skills and abilities is one method to help the organization withstand a turbulent environment. Having a diverse workforce means that as the external factors impinge you have a greater chance of having staff that can deal with the changing conditions. They will have a greater variety of insights, experiences, knowledge, and abilities that can be brought to bear to deal with the uncertainty that turbulence brings.

Reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and rules.

Every time you create a rule, you should be monitoring for compliance and then you must have consequences for rule violation. Rules are meaningless if not monitored or enforced. It is as though it doesn’t exist. And rule violation becomes part of the accepted organizational culture. It is a downward spiral. Unfortunately, what we sometimes hear coming out of an organization may go something like: “Sexual harassment? Oh, that rule is not enforced, and anyway he is our best salesperson.” Attitudes are often driven by the behaviors you demand of the staff. If you demand that everyone work in a safe manner, attitudes around safety will follow. The same holds true for quality, customer service, concern about employee well-being, and expectations of behaviors towards fellow workers, etc. It is not that rules and procedures should not exist, it is that the ones that do exit should be important and central to the organization’s success. Unnecessary rules are often written to control the behaviors for those at the bottom of the distribution and not for the majority and certainly they are not written for your top performers. But these rules can make your best performers regress into mediocrity as they are also likely your best rule followers. So, what you are doing by creating unnecessary rules is codifying mediocrity into the organization.  A rule set that allows exceptional people to excel, solid performers to perform and those who abuse the system to be filtered out is the goal. One place to start is an analysis of espoused values vs. what is actually rewarded and then realigning your rewards as needed. That requires work, effort and sweat, and organizations that apply mass rule-making to large groups of people make that very difficult. It is easy to apply mass rules; it is much more difficult to handle exceptions to good policy.

Control variance.

A goal or rule that is designed to catch a small number of abusers will lead to suboptimal performance. And the small number of abusers are often highlighted to justify the rules that can hold back performance. Why should we put draconian measures in place to prevent abuse of food-aid programs? Sure, you can find a person who uses that aid to buy steak and lobster and didn’t really need it, but you are overlooking the vast majority of people who use it to make sure their kids don’t go to bed hungry. And kids who go to bed hungry will have a more difficult time excelling at school and life. And eventually that degrades society in general. The abuser should be dealt with as a one-off, rather than making the people who actually need it suffer.

Encourage inherent enthusiasm.

It has been shown repeatedly that most people within organizations want to do a good job. They want the organization to succeed. For if the organization succeeds their chances for success within the organization increases. The most enthusiastic people in an organization are generally the ones you just hired. There are very, very few people who when starting a new job at a new organization go in with an attitude of “let’s see how little work I can do.” That potential degradation in performance comes later, once the employee is frustrated with the effort it takes to get their work done because of ineffective systems or processes and the lack of a longer-term vision of their future. A new word for this seen in the press lately is “quiet quitting,” but more on that in a moment.

Use technology as a tool, not a solution.

Technology for organizations, especially large organizations is seductive. It can make large scale rule monitoring and enforcement easier. But always think through whether just because something can be done, it should it be done. For instance, recently in the news was a story about monitoring remote workers. Organizations were monitoring the activity of each remote employee and at times docking their pay if too much time was spent on activities that the monitoring systems could not measure or determined as inappropriate. In general employees who are working remote tend to report more time spent doing work related activity rather than less, and in fact some find it hard to break away, since work is simply in the next room of the house. This obviously is not a problem with the employees but attempts to play on an emotional fear that you can’t trust people to want to do a good job at work (playing off of fears like this is also a hallmark of disinformation campaigns and authoritarians). If you feel you need to monitor employees at that level, the first question is why is there such a lack of trust within the organization? And second, do you have the right people in place, starting with the management team? One outcome of monitoring people like that will be the increase in a propensity to unionize as employees will greatly resent the intrusiveness. Remember, you get the union you deserve.

As mentioned above a concept in the news at the moment is being call “Quiet quitting.” Quiet quitting is when employees only put in the effort for which they are paid, not going above and beyond in service to the organizations or its customers. This feels like old wine in a new bottle. Previously quiet quitting was marketed as disengagement. But remember, employees come in wanting to do a good job and get frustrated usually by the difficulty in trying to do a good job, or the lack of ability to see a future for themselves. Burnout has become an increasing alarming issue to those who track it, with employee stress levels currently hitting levels not seen before. It would not be unusual for over 80% of employees to report that the stress they are experience is impacting their ability to get their jobs done. Simply demanding more and more from employees without time allowed for decompression and stress relief will long-term reduce performance and increase voluntary turnover.

Keep your gaze on the future, but don’t forget the present.

One way is help control turbulence over the longer term is to appropriately balance short-term profits with longer term success. Scott Brooks and I wrote a book on this topic called Creating the Vital Organization, back in 2016. What would the current business landscape look like if railroads had considered themselves transportation or logistics companies rather than railroads? Would some of the railroads that have gone out of business over the years moved into air transport of goods and passengers as the technology changed? Would they now be developing electric cars or trucks? Organizations need to focus on being profitable in the here and now, or they won’t have the resources to transform in the future as the environment changes. They also need to become good at predicting the changes that are underway in their environment and to pick the right way to change themselves over time, staying competitive in that new environment. Luckily there is a way to do that with a higher degree of confidence.

Measuring confidence.

During the 2007/2008 “Great Recession” we began measuring in the 12 largest global economies the levels of confidence that employees had in their organizations. We used a random sampling technique and each quarter asked 15,000 people to respond to a series of questions that were based on a confidence model that we had developed. The notion is pretty simple. Those folks in the trenches working day-to-day on organizational goals or interacting with your customers have a pretty good idea in the here and now about what is going on. Customers not coming by? Maybe the sales figures at the end of the quarter are going to be down. Lots of returned merchandise due to manufacturing faults? Maybe customer satisfaction and purchase decisions are going to start plummeting. The same techniques can be applied to forward looking events. How confident is the staff that the new outlet is ready to open? That the new product will be in demand by customers? How confident are the executives that the upcoming acquisition will be a good fit, or that the company is responding well to the turbulent market conditions? Measuring confidence can be a source of critical information for the organization and indeed the findings hold that the predictions employees can provide accurately forecast future focused events.

Turbulence is a fact of life. Things change. But it is clearly possible to take evidence-based actions that can help organizations fly through that turbulence with a greater likelihood of longer-term success.

Interested in learning more or simply discussing? Give OrgVitality a call, we would be happy to help.


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