How HR can support the business after a setback

So election fever is now behind us; the shock of an unexpected Conservative win has started to dissipate, and thoughts are moving to what their first moves will be as a majority government.

For the losing parties, however, equally challenging times lie ahead. New leaders will have to be found, and there will be the inevitable inquests over what went wrong and how those whose hopes and plans have been decimated are going to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again.

Of course this isn’t a situation confined to politics. Every day in business, companies flounder, projects crash, people’s career plans are derailed – and HR is left with the task of picking up the pieces, re-motivating employees after failures or disappointments, and getting everyone focused on moving forward.

So if your business has suffered a setback, what’s the best way to get everyone back on track?

Review and regroup

When a project or initiative fails, it’s important to take a step back and reflect honestly on what went wrong. Make sure, however, that this exercise is about learning from mistakes rather than apportioning blame or finding scapegoats. Be objective – acknowledge that in some areas things could have been done differently, and talk about how to make sure the same mistakes won’t happen again. Don’t dwell on what went badly for too long though, it’s much more helpful to think about how you can build on the achievements that have been made and make best use of the people and skills at your disposal to build a new and more successful future.

Deal with the emotions

If a project that people have worked long and hard on is pulled at the last minute, there’s bound to be anger and frustration. If a promised promotion doesn’t come to fruition, it’s only natural for an employee to be upset and disappointed. Managers are often worried about letting people unleash their emotions in the workplace – and of course you don’t want inappropriate outbursts – but if you don’t give staff a chance to vent they will just bottle it up, and they will find it hard to move on. As motivational speaker Paul McGee says, it’s OK to give people a bit of ‘hippo time’, as long as you don’t allow them to wallow for too long. Create an open, trusting environment where everyone has some time to come to terms with the outcome, then encourage people to move on.

Check on your talent

When things go wrong, people may be tempted to head for the door – especially if they see their career prospects being derailed. If there are key people that the business depends on, it’s important to talk to them early on and find a way to excite them about staying with the company. It’s important to be honest too; making promises you’re not able to deliver on will likely do further, irrevocable damage.

Help leaders communicate a positive image of the future

In the aftermath of a setback – and often in the absence of certainty about how the future will pan out – people need a clear vision to latch onto. A key task for leaders is to create that vision and use it to inspire people through the difficult early days when they are downhearted and concerned about what’s going to happen next. Whenever possible, it helps to involve people in re-imagining the future. They are much more likely to be engaged with new priorities if they have had an input in shaping them. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s enough just to communicate the vision once – it’s important to keep reminding people of where the business is headed so that they understand the part they play in helping to move things forward.

Build resilience for the future

While some people are naturally resilient in the face of set-backs, others find it more difficult to bounce back– their self-esteem has taken a hit and they need help to get back on track. Leaders can help to build employee (and indeed personal) resilience for the future by reminding people of their strengths and the good things they have already achieved. Be aware of the signs of work-related stress, put policies in place to support employee well-being, and make sure people know it’s OK to speak out if they are struggling or worried. It’s about creating a positive environment where people can feel optimistic and able to envisage a successful future going forward.

One action to take this week: How resilient is your team? Think about the kind of initiatives you can put in place to ensure they are prepared to deal positively with setbacks.

References: S.U.M.O (Shut Up, Move On): The Straight-Talking Guide to Succeeding in Life by Paul McGee.

You may be interested in reading: How HR can help the business build a shared direction.


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