Engage in adversity – BAE systems 


Alex Lewis (HR Director at BAE Systems plc) is a member of the EfS Taskforce and the Chair of the Adversity sub-group. The Adversity sub-group commissioned the four Adversity Videos that have been posted on our site over the past few weeks. In this interview Alex tell us why the Taskforce felt their was a need to focus on this topic. Also Alex give us some tips on how to sustain engagement and embed the enablers during difficult times.

Making of the film

• Why did the EfS Taskforce feel adversity should be a key topic of EfS to focus on?

The EfS Taskforce was launched in 2010 at the point where UK employers were either making or executing plans to cope with the impact of the financial crisis. The Task Force were concerned that employers would ‘put engagement on a shelf’ and focus on managing these plans. As a Task Force we wanted to explore this and support employers in using engagement as an central enabler to managing adversity.

• What was your biggest personal learning from making the video?

The main message was that focusing on the four enablers of engagement is more important during a period of change than at any other time. The clearest message that came through was that the most effective organisations defined where the organisation needed to go and then involved every employee in working out how to get there.

• What did each of those interviewed have in common?

We were struck by how common the good practice themes were across different organisations. We heard the same messages loud and clear from public sector employers, private sector employers, large companies, SME’s, Trade Unions, employees and line managers.

Strategic Narrative in times of adversity

• What advice would you give to leaders when the strategic direction for the business may be perceived as a bad new story?

One of the Trade Union leaders we interviewed summarised this for me when he said ‘people can take just about any news when it is explained honestly and with integrity’. The main learning from the leadership insights would be that you should have an on-going dialogue about the future, don’t wait until you have ‘significant news’. When you have ‘bad news’ your role is to explain the destination honestly and provide an opportunity for two way dialogue about what this means. The journey to the destination is a shared one so find ways to give your people a role in charting the route.

• What tips do you have for business leaders or communication partners working with members of a senior management team who are not visible or accessible (eg. not active on social collaboration platforms) during a period of adversity?

One of the most striking insights we received was from an employee who explained how when there is difficult news employees, in the space of a few hours, go from the recipient of the communication to the communicator. When employees get home after work and their job may be at risk they then have to explain to their families what the news is, why and what is going to happen next. The more ability they have to answer those questions, the more certainty and control they have. The leaders’ role in helping the employee understand those key messages is a key responsibility. In times of difficult news and instability people look for leadership – much of the effectiveness of the change process is based on leadership and the availability, patience and effectiveness of leadership when it comes to explaining, discussing and listening.

Engaging line-managers in times of adversity

• In making the video, were there some obvious qualities that identify those who can manage successfully through adversity? Does it seem as though leadership is changing?

When we discuss leadership often we revert to describing technical competencies such as decision making or organisational skills. The things that differentiated the best leaders when it came to managing through adversity were essentially human. For example, the best leaders listened, discussed, explained and demonstrated empathy and care. With all of that in mind, there are some essential skills which are key in planning for difficult change. Organisations are well advised to think about whether their line managers would benefit from some communications skills refresher training to ensure they have the skills and confidence to carry out their essential role.

• Often during time of adversity the managers are also affected by the changes themselves. How can business support their managers so they can in turn support their teams?

It is important to be sensitive to the fact that the leaders in the organisation are also sometimes potentially affected by the change that you are asking them to manage. Beyond demonstrating empathy toward them and ensuring that they have the opportunity to have their voice heard the organisation should ensure that the managers concerned have the resources they need to manage their own situation and that of their teams – the key resource being information.

Employee voice in times of adversity

• What advice do you have for business leaders who are struggling to enable 2-way communication? What approaches have you found to be most successful?

More and more organisations are turning to social media, blogs and digital ways of communicating with employees which is useful and certainly has its place. When managing difficult change there is little substitute for genuine human dialogue. There is also a place for senior leadership communication and what some organisation call ‘town halls’. However, the most effective communication vehicle that any organisation has is its line managers. Line Managers have to have the skills and the information to communicate and the remit and facility to listen. Communication channels have to be regular and effective to ensure that line managers have the ability to feed questions in and get answers to pass on. It is clear that in managing change, effective voice generates trust. Trust is typically built by committing to do something (e.g. weekly communication) and then doing it (‘I will get you the answer’)

Employee Representatives and Trade Unions are also important in the process of 2 way communication. Employees gain confidence if they are hearing the same messages from their Trade Union leaders so invest in the time to manage the change process with Trade Unions and Employee representatives.

• Important decisions have been made without any employee input – how should business leaders go about seeking engagement from employees to ensure the change happens effectively?

If organisations really challenge themselves, there are not that many decision that need to have to be made without employee input. When speaking to business leaders a common theme that came through was that it is the role of senior leadership to decide what the destination of the change is. The journey of how to get to the destination is a shared one and as long as the destination is reached in the required time, how organisations get there is something that is best done with the full participation of those affected.

Integrity in times of adversity

• Often during times of adversity leaders feel they are not in position to be totally upfront about what is really happening. They feel this way for various reasons – both real and perceived obstacles (e.g competitive sensitivity, fear negative impact on productivity). Taking this approach can be detrimental to a leader’s perceived integrity and employees can lose trust in them. What advice would you give to a leader in this position?

This is a real issue as it always seems that there are reasons why you should delay in sharing news. These can range from the impact that sharing the news would have on customer contract negotiations or through uncontrolled media coverage etc. The best advice we heard in making the video was to not wait for major news to communicate. Sharing the ‘strategic narrative’ should be an on-going process that is happening all the time. This can mitigate the shock of bad news so that the news is seen as a the conclusion to the contract discussions or the nature of the market conditions. From experience, the best advice is just to be bold and share news as early as practical.

Watch the Adversity video’s by clicking through to this article.

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