When times are tough should you tell your team?

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I have had many conversations with clients over the years around the topic of transparency in business. How much do we share with our employees around the business nitty-gritty?

These conversations ranged from whether to share profit figures, to having everyone’s salaries open. I have also been asked whether we should keep employees safe from the bad bits of news and whether the owner should drive a luxury car or invite staff to their beautiful home.

Often it’s not a question of whether or not we tell employees certain things but rather why are we telling them? Do we want them to take some sort of action as a result of the sharing, is it actually helpful to them?

This is a particularly interesting question to ask when things are not going so well, and one I had to consider earlier in the year.

I found myself in an extremely stressful and unprepared situation when we engaged someone to review the work of our accountants. What we found was extremely alarming. Our ‘trusted and qualified’ advisers who we had on a hefty retainer for over 18 months, turned out to be incompetent.

Yep, a pretty bad surprise to receive. What we believed to be fact about our business was, in fact, completely incorrect. Decisions we had made about hiring, expansion and growth all turned out to be based on incorrect data. And as the year went on and our investigations deepened, what we found just got worse and worse.

This obviously became the number one agenda item of our executive and board meetings. How do we deal with the lengthy list of issues that we now had? How do we fix this?

I remember quite clearly saying to my exec team that we must ensure that the team do not know about this. I didn’t want to upset them or worry them or distract them from the great work they were doing. We had to keep calm and sort this out, we didn’t want to cause ripples in the team’s confidence.

However, when I went home that day and lay awake most of the night  (which was a common occurrence for many months) I thought back to the difficult years of 2009 and 2010 where we helped many clients severely affected by the GFC to downsize their businesses. I remember the ones that had proactively worked on their cultures for many years beforehand and their approach.

One client in particular reduced their entire workforce of 45 people to part-time to get through (which ended up being over 12 months). They did not lose one employee over that time. Each team member making an individual sacrifice for the workplace that had developed and supported them over the years.

What amazing team spirit.

I thought about my team, our culture and in particular one of our values ‘we are always passionate and in tough times we fight’. I realised that it is the bad bits that make us stronger, that give us an opportunity to be better and right now we needed everyone on deck to get through this. If anyone in the team couldn’t handle the information or thought only of how it affects them then perhaps they are not the right crew.

I was prepared to take the risk.

So we pulled the team together and shared what had happened. We talked about the impact on cash flow, the exec team’s focus, and my energy and emotions. We shared our plan of attack (or recovery) and what we all needed to do as a team to fight through and win this battle. We firstly ran a two-hour training session on Accounting 101 with the entire team so they could understand the situation better (it was hard for them to imagine any issues as the business had grown 30% on last year and was continuing this growth at break-neck speed.)

 To make it ‘fun’ we created a quarterly challenge called the Three Amigo’s which was all about the three key areas we as a team needed to solely focus on to recover. We decorated the office with bright and happy decorations, and we pulled together and got to work.

We are now coming to the end of the Three Amigos challenge and last week I was very happy to let the team know we had done it! We hit all of the targets and reversed the effects of the stressful situation we had been in.

It felt like a near impossible task at the time but, we pulled together and it was truly amazing to experience what we could do as a team.

What was so heart-warming and interesting to see was the ownership and accountability junior members of the team took on. Previously they felt they couldn’t impact sales, expenditure and delivery, but they completely engaged with the recovery mission and played a huge part in its success.

So now when clients ask me whether they should share the bad bits with employees, I can say with conviction and experience YES! Don’t underestimate your team, it is their business too. They care about its health and wellbeing just as much as you do.

Share the load and let them help you!

 There is nothing like a little dose of adversity to bring your team together!  Here’s to a strong 2016!

Sue-Ellen Watts is the founder and director of wattsnext, specialists in HR, recruitment, compliance and people performance.

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Sue-Ellen Watts is the founder and director of wattsnext, specialists in HR, recruitment, compliance and people performance.

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