A significant shift in funder priorities, such as occurred with the recent change of government in Ontario, can have far reaching effects on your staff’s morale.  There is something you can do about it.

Potential cutbacks or funding freezes affecting your organization or service may lead to no increases in salary or decreases in programs. Staff, subsequently, begin feeling concern about their clients and uncertainty about their employment. If left in the dark, and reliant on gossip within the organization or service sector, staff may become increasingly demoralized and disengaged. A disengaged staff leads to lower productivity ratings and increasingly dysfunctional work relationships.

As a manager you will be most aware of the effects on the staff you supervise, and are in a position to manage the dynamics. Your role, as always, is to support them to contribute to the best of their ability. A survey of Human Resource professionals in Canada revealed the top 3 ways to engage staff are to 1) communicate clear expectations, 2) listen to employees’ opinions, and 3) give recognition for work well done. Over time this effort builds trust and goodwill. Consequently, people will establish healthy work relationships and go beyond their job descriptions as needed. Engaging staff through difficult situations, however, can require additional strategies and extra attention. Here are some Dos and Don’ts:

Don’t say anything you know to be false.

When people feel urgency in a situation they may press for information that is not yet available; for example, ‘is my job safe’? There are suggestions about how to communicate to staff in the ‘Do’ section.

Don’t dismiss your staff anxieties if and when they are shared with you.

Suppressing anxieties or saying, ‘everything will be all right’ will come back to haunt you if the situation turns out to be not so.

Doing either of the above actions will diminish trust and lose any goodwill with staff you had previously been able to establish.

Do set a tone focused on the strengths of your staff, your team and yourself.

Any effort spent ‘worrying’ about the future is wasted. Remind staff when they have been resourceful and resilient in the past. Help them get prepared to contribute to your organization’s strategy to deal with change.

Do keep a 2-way channel of communication with your staff.

Keep your door open often, and wander around to observe and check how people are doing and feeling. If you have not yet received specific information from your superiors about what to say, send them a briefing note stating the types of questions you are being asked, and request guidance on how to respond. You may ask if you can state an assurance such as, ‘we expect our core funding to stay constant, as it has over the past 10 years’.

Do recognize and acknowledge good work that is being done, both one-on-one and in your staff meetings.

Celebrate as much as possible, for example with cookies brought from home if your budget doesn’t allow more substantial recognition.

Do monitor your own feelings for signs of insecurity, and seek clarity and support from your superior or colleagues.

Be sure to not disengage from your role and responsibility as a leader of your staff. Showing nervousness is a form of non-verbal communication to staff that there is something to be concerned about.

Do ask your staff for success stories about how clients are being well served.

Send these stories to your superior. Staff will feel better to be reminded of the difference they make in people’s lives. They will also feel better about doing something about the situation if they see these stories communicated to others.

Do consider uncertainty as an opportunity to review, with staff, ways to improve performance to meet targets for client outcomes or staff productivity.

Remind them what they are good at, and where there is room for improvement. Encourage your staff to participate in any organization focus groups to generate ideas on how to improve the situation. Again, they will feel better if they can contribute to making the situation better as part of a team.

Do think about engagement as a long term effort to be applied in ‘good times’ as well.

According to A Study of Employee Engagement in the Canadian Workplace, 54.2% of Not-for-Profit human resource professionals reported engagement is a problem in their organization. Considering that Gallup research has shown that managers account for 70% of variance in whether staff are productively engaged in the work of the organization, it may suggest that even in ‘good’ times managers have not been fully effective in carrying out their engagement responsibilities.

Take these suggestions for staff engagement and apply them whether or not your organization is anticipating changing expectations. A staff that is more fully engaged during the good times will be better able to handle downturns. During heightened uncertainty you have the opportunity to further recognize the value in your staff, and earn their trust in return.