leadership development


While the dramatic drop in oil prices has rocked the oil and gas industry, the ripples are being felt far beyond Calgaryā€™s office towers. Many companies across the country expect to see lower sales, fewer machinery purchases and possibly reduced hiring because of the oil and gas downturn, according to the Bank of Canada.

In other words, no sectorā€”and no businessā€”is immune.

In our previous column, we looked atĀ two key steps that companies can use to create engaged productivity with their employees. In this column, weā€™ll look at three additional techniques to help executives, managers and employees work together during these uncertain times.

Step 3: Pin down your priorities
Tough times can mean urgent demands and ever changing priorities, which is perhaps unavoidable. Urgent demands of new priorities from above are guaranteed to achieve something and this usually is increased distraction and anxiety, both of which reduce productivity. Finding strategies to work effectively and make good decisions when this happens is key. Where possible, managers can try to reduce urgency by managing up and asking clarifying questions of executives to ensure the consequences of urgent demands are understood and prioritized alongside other important work. If itā€™s not possible to reduce urgent demands, then managers can pay extra attention to how they are communicated and provide support for their implementation. Give clarity around new priorities and expectations and recognize that adding new demands usually requires the need to delay or remove something else.

When overload is high, executives and managers can create clarity by taking a disciplined approach to prioritization. Categorizing work using this simple ABC approach can be effective:

A. Ā An important priority and aligned with corporate goals.Ā 
B. Ā Important but could be delayed.
C. Ā Could be postponed indefinitely or cancelled.

Think of it as a spring cleaning of projects that helps cull all but the most important initiatives. This process could also be influenced by asking employees for their ideas on what work or projects could be delayed or eliminated. This bottom-up feedback is valuable and usuallyĀ accurate.


One of the simplest ways that managers and employees alike can make sure they are working on whatā€™s most important is to start from a blank sheet every day and ask, ā€œWhatā€™s the one thing I could do today that would make the biggest difference?ā€ Then be disciplined about working on that, especially during your peak energy time. Productive work habits include focusing only on one task or project for one to two hours, and making sure you take a 10-minute break at least once an hour. Managers can encourage employees to figure out their peak work hours and give them the flexibility to adapt to them.

  • What can executives do?Ā Reduce urgent demands where possible. Be clear on priorities and communicate them effectively to all levels. Understand that when priorities change quickly and urgent deadlines are in place, stress levels increase and productivity may decrease. Provide the resources and permission for employees to practice self-care to reduce stress and maintain productivity that will drive the results you want.
  • What can managers do?Ā Manage up by requiring clarity from the executive level before implementing urgent demands. Be clear on goals, priorities and expectations of your staff. Hold frequent conversations with employees to align on priorities. Provide support and watch for signs of stress and reduced productivity.
  • What can employees do?Ā Makes sure your priority work is clear every day. Ask yourself, ā€œIf I say ā€˜yesā€™ to this, what am I saying ā€˜noā€™ to? Figure out your peak energy times and use them for focused, uninterrupted work.

Step 4: Get better at giving (and getting) far more feedback
Engaged productivity requires a heightened focus on the manager-employee relationship, which is primarily based on effective communication and how well important conversations are handled. These are arguably the most impactful moments for any organization and can have a dramatic and compounding effect on corporate performance and bottom-line results. When priorities change rapidly, demands are increased and budgets are lowered, it is more important than ever to clarify priorities and expectations. When managers give employees feedback and do it well, it resolves feelings of uncertainty, clarifies expectations and keeps people focused on priorities. Feedback invokes important course corrections for under-performers and creates opportunities for learning and improvement. Effective feedback motivates and engages people at any level of performance. When done badly or not at all, individual and team engagement and performance can plummet.

Smiling Lady

According to a study recently published in the Harvard Business Review, the cost of rudeness, incivility and inappropriate behaviour towards other employees is high for organizations. Emotional stress reduces energy and commitment. Half of employees who experienced rude behaviour at work intentionally decreased their efforts. More than one-third deliberately decreased the quality of their work and two-thirds said their performance had declined. In times like these, we canā€™t afford not to correct this behaviour, but most managers shy away from these feedback conversations.

Feedback conversations, when handled well, are a huge opportunity for organizations to improve the performance of existing staff and boost the bottom line. A 2012 study by the Boston Consulting Group found that high-performing companies emphasized feedback and open discussions as well as frequent, informal performance reviews. These companies experienced revenue growth 3.5 times higher and profit margins 2.1 times higher than less capable companies. Yet many managers cannot give effective feedback or avoid it altogether. Most donā€™t know how to hold candid performance feedback conversations.

Sadly, this is also true for recognizing employees for good work. In his 2012 book Surviving the Talent Exodus, John Grubbs said, ā€œAppreciation is the number one motivator above money, interesting work and promotion potential. Yet many leaders simply wonā€™t or don’t know how to show sincere appreciation.ā€ Recognizing employees for their contribution is the easiest form of feedback, and we donā€™t spend enough time focusing on peopleā€™s strengths.

Research shows that when people work with a positive mindset, engagement and performance on every level improves. A Bersin & Associates study has shown that organizations that do a good job of recognizing employees perform 14 times better than companies who donā€™t. Research also shows that praising peopleā€™s efforts fuels positive emotions in the giver as well as the receiver. Appreciation makes both people happier and more engaged.The good newsā€”and the huge opportunity for all organizationsā€”is that learning how to give effective feedback is easy.

  • What can executives do?Ā Train managers on how to give effective feedback and hold them accountable for holding regular, ongoing feedback conversations as a critical part of their role.
  • What can managers do?Ā Seek training in giving effective feedback and build a regular practice of it so it becomes second nature. Give people more recognition and do it regularly.
  • What can employees do?Ā Ask for more feedback. Younger generations are already doing this as they want far more frequent feedback than boomers ever did.

Step 5: Coach to maximize the potential of your people
When times are tough, donā€™t cut training budgets. Increase them if you can. If this isnā€™t realistic, prioritize where you can spend your for the most impactful results. Providing learning opportunities has a huge positive impact on engaged productivity. The 2015 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Report said that companies with high performing learning environments rank at the top for employee engagement. Giving employees and managers learning opportunities is a big motivator. It shows you care about their development and will commit dollars to support it. If feedback conversations are happening, employee development opportunities naturally arise. Providing necessary or desired training can make a big difference to both commitment and performance.

A critical new component to applying any learning from training and developing your people is teaching managers how to coach them. Coaching is the glue that binds the other steps together to create engaged productivity. Coaching helps clarify the alignment of the employeeā€™s role with the short-term and long-term vision and helps them create a concrete action plan and accountability to implement it. It also supports all aspects of self-care and can significantly reduce employee stress. Coaching helps with clarification of priorities and increases motivation and is aligned with a culture of ongoing feedback.


Coaching is an essential leadership role, according the Harvard Business Review. Forbes has said, ā€œOrganizations are adding the ability to coach and develop others to the list of skills they require in all their managers.ā€ However, the magazine goes on to say, ā€œIn reality, few managers know how to make coaching work. Nearly half spend less than 10 per cent of their time coaching others.ā€ Other studies outline this missed opportunity. In the Bersin & Associates 2011 High-Impact Performance Management survey, the most severe challenge reported by HR professionals was that ā€œmanagersā€™ lack the skills to coach their employees.ā€ One of the reportā€™s top findings was that managersā€™ inability to coach is the most severe performance management challenge organizations face.

Sam Davis, vice-president of the American Management Association, says, ā€œEvery manager has a responsibility to be a coach. [They] may find themselves in coaching situations every day, whether they know it or not. The trick is to make sure they do it rightā€”creating mutual trust to make employees comfortable sharing their goals, promoting a conversational atmosphere.ā€ Bersin cited the benefits of coaching people and pointed toward the solution when it reported, ā€œNo matter how we looked at it, coaching correlated with better employee, talent management and business results.ā€ Bersin cited three performance coaching behaviors that are most critical and are the most important elements to teach:

  1. listening actively;
  2. reinforcing positive behavior; and
  3. asking open-ended questions.

As with feedback, teaching managers how to coach employees is a learnable and critical skill in todayā€™s workforce, especially considering the growing population of younger workers.

  • What can executives do?Ā Focus management training dollars on the highest impact training such as how to coach employees.
  • What can managers do?Ā Learn coaching and feedback skills. This is a critical skill you now need and itā€™s highly effective, especially in difficult times.
  • What can employees do?Ā Take responsibility for your own learning and development. Ask for more conversations with your manager about your training and development opportunities and encourage him to coachā€”ask and listenā€”and mentor and advise you.

This article was first published in Oilweek online magazine April 27, 2015.

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