This article was originally published The Guardian on 17th October 2011.
Anger is in the air, on the streets, in the workplace, even in our homes. Upheaval in the economy is creating discontent at all levels. And for those of us leading the public sector we’re feeling it most acutely. If by some miracle you have some job security many of your friends and colleagues will have lost theirs.
Beyond job losses we’re all facing a barrage of discontent internally and externally. Internally, as we face the challenge of supporting colleagues adapt to new roles, pay deals and priorities, many of which they do not like or accept. Externally, unease is all too obvious from the August riots and their aftermath, to the subtler but no less passionate and visible campaigns to save services and stop the cuts.
What makes all of this especially difficult to stomach is that many of us never agreed to the changes that are fuelling the anger. And even if we did agree with some of them, we rarely supported its handling. So we’re left trying to hold together our organisations and communities when we would never have allowed this to happen in the first place.
Overly positivistic management gurus talk about clearing out “dead wood” or creating the space for essential “disruptive innovation”. But we and our colleagues are human and humans find change hard. We just do. It creates anxiety and makes many of us angry. And with the double dip looming things are going to get angrier before they get calmer.
So what to do? In these angry times how do we make sure that our organisations, communities and lives don’t get derailed by a society at boiling point? Here are six steps that might just help you navigate the anger around you:
1.Face the music
It’s vital that leaders acknowledge the existence of any anger, conflict and uncertainty. We’ve all been in organisations when the boss has failed to do this through ignorance, incompetence or cowardice. Don’t be one of those. You don’t need to agree with whatever you’re acknowledging but if people feel that at least their concerns are acknowledged it is the vital starting point. This is relevant when working with the public as well. When communities raise concerns about service changes, recognise those concerns, regardless of whether you think their concerns are well founded. That is not the point.
2. Communicate authentically
When facing the angry music, explain it as you see it. Be as authentic as you can. Avoid management jargon at all costs – it will just serve to alienate you further. Don’t talk about “capacity overhead streamlining”, talk about “friends and colleagues who have gone and will be badly missed”. Always acknowledge that your view is necessarily partial. Use subjective language to make this clear: ‘In my opinion…” not “…this is a fact”. If you can, explain the personal challenges you are facing, with a view to building common ground between them and you.
3. Create clarity
If a sense of injustice is often the spark for civic unrest, uncertainty is the fuel that maintains it. Outline very clear next steps even if those steps are creating a plan as opposed to having one. What people need is a concrete sense that whoever is in charge is in charge and knows what they are doing. Even if they don’t like what’s being proposed, a proposal is often better than no proposal. If a library’s being closed, for example, make it clear which library services are being maintained and how. What are your plans for the premises? What will you do with the books? Make all this as explicit as possible especially to the staff (first) and users (second).
4. Establish shared goals
Anxiety and anger can create doubt around people’s intentions. Wherever possible identify common goals. These could be high-level, such as improving the community and protecting the vulnerable, goals which people on all sides would agree with. Having established these, the next step is working out how to achieve them. Taking the library example: if there are areas for negotiation such as where library books will be located, whether to move some services online, or selecting which premises are to close, create space to discuss and agree these decisions with staff and community members. This could be through community workshops or online debates involving the public and press. This way not only can you channel public anger usefully, you can also harness the expertise you may otherwise miss.
5. Empower others
Anger is a powerful force that is at the heart of many effective organisations and projects. Do whatever you can to channel that anger into something meaningful. This may include giving other people the responsibility and support to solve the problems they now face. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling a sense of injustice and not being able to do anything about it. Conversely, there are few things more empowering than a sense of injustice and the explicit mandate and support to do something about it.
Try giving colleagues or the community channels through which to “save” their services or jobs. In 2010 Lincolnshire council faced considerable public opposition to closing some of its museums and galleries. In response, the council gave the community the chance to put forward business plans to keep the facilities open. It was more of a platitude than a considered policy, but to the council’s surprise the community came back with some viable options that have led to many of the facilities being saved. The council is still providing some finance but a fraction of what it once did.
6. Keep talking
Angry and uncertain conditions make things change in unpredictable ways. This means you’ll want to keep talking to others to understand how their frustrations change and develop new plans with them in response. It will also be vital to ensure that uncertainty doesn’t raise its ugly face again. This is easy to say but challenging to do in the often hectic and reactive environments we now find ourselves. Try a mix of approaches – Facebook, Twitter and Youtube as well as more traditional community meetings. Different people like different ways of “talking”. Be vigilant, assume you’re not communicating enough and continually check your assumptions with others.
Despite the malaise many of us feel that if handled well the tough times we now face may be fruitful. They are forcing many of us to reflect in ways we otherwise wouldn’t have. We all know tales of how the darkest nights have laid the foundations for the brightest days. And as we’ve seen, if handled properly anger can and often is a powerful force for good.
But that shouldn’t dissuade us from acknowledging that in those dark moments life is hard. That’s why we get mad in the first place. So let’s not “keep calm and carry on”, but get mad and motivated and try to make a difference to the mess we’re in.
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