Three positive ways to lead your NFP through uncertain and troubling times

It’s no secret that the not-for-profit sector has faced unprecedented instability in recent years, with uncertainty fast becoming the ‘new normal’.

The drastic drop in donations caused by the GFC, constant fluctuations in government funding and sweeping sector reforms like the NDIS are just three examples of massive change – and that doesn’t even touch on the increasingly volatile political climate both in Australia and overseas.

One recent survey even found that growing anxiety over world affairs is causing people to be less productive.

NFPs need steady organisational leadership more than ever. As a NFP leader, it remains your job to help your staff do their best work – to nurture creativity, innovation and sustainability, and help your people navigate these uncertain waters.

So how can you lead your team through these times, and even start developing a culture within your organisation to prepare you for inevitable change in the future?

Faisal Hoque is an entrepreneur, management expert and founder of Shadoka, a consultancy that helps NFPs and businesses make a “lasting, social impact”. In an article for Fast Company, Hoque suggests that we should start developing skills to help lead teams during these uncertain times, and to prepare for change in the future.

Hoque shares three important lessons for NFP leaders at all levels of your organisation:

1. Use the power of positivity

As a leader, your ability to effectively manage your emotions affects everything from your own performance to how you interact with your staff – particularly during times of uncertainty.

While it’s easy to focus on what’s going wrong, it’s also a surefire way to invite more negativity into your NFP.

So how can you deal with anxiety caused by things outside your control?

Hoque suggests focusing on the positives to keep your goals in perspective and accept that you can’t affect the things beyond your control.

Focus on what you’re trying to achieve and the things you can change for the better, what Hoque calls your “immediate sphere of influence”. Remind yourself and your team that latching on to negative emotions actually drives people away, and opportunities with them.

2. Always show empathy

Being clear with your communication is always important in an NFP, no matter your size. But during periods of instability? It’s critical.

You need to be absolutely clear in setting goals for your team or organisation, before anyone begins to work on them. This means that everyone understands the context of what they are doing, and what’s expected of them in the long run.

Now, how do you keep staff motivated to reach those goals when they become anxious?

You need to remain open and approachable as a leader. When staff feel anxious or upset during times of change, they need to feel comfortable sharing their concerns with and asking questions of you. That means asking questions, encouraging others to do the same, and listen actively and without judgement or bias to the answers.

Hoque says it’s about “trading messages respectfully and accurately, not just delivering them” – and paying close attention to both the factual content as well as the emotion.

After all, above and beyond speaking and reassuring, a leader’s most important duty is to make space to listen to their staff.

3. Don’t hit the brakes

In the middle of uncertain or tumultuous periods, Hoque advocates for defining a better vision for the future – and actually acting on that instead of getting philosophical.

How? Highlight the urgency of what you’re trying to achieve to instil a sense of purpose in your staff. After all, your organisation’s mission isn’t static, and its success hinges on how you act on your principles – not just on the principles themselves.

Remember: regardless of the current climate, purpose-driven organisations always act and adapt. They’re always looking for solutions or gaps to fill…are you?

Hoque suggests four questions to ask yourself to get ahead of the game, (and you should ask these questions whether or not you’re experiencing any dramatic change right now):

  • How are the needs of our clients, partners or supporters changing? What about changing technologies and socioeconomic factors – particularly ones beyond our scope of control?
  • How are other NFPs approaching things both now and in the future? How will we measure up against them as time progresses?
  • What do we do well now, and what have we always done better than other organisations?
  • What can we do better, potentially through new collaborators, partners or organisational structures?

Constantly returning to these questions during instability can help embed the idea of change in your organisation’s culture. And that means you’ll often be better positioned to adapt during periods of uncertainty.

Central to the success of this is experimentation and responsibility, says Hoque, as well as the understanding among your staff that risk-taking is both necessary and encouraged during these times.

Uncertainty can be uncomfortable experience, violently rocking the proverbial boat. But with the right approach to leadership – and remembering that you’ve probably come through the other side of similar periods – you can ensure winds of change don’t capsize your organisation.

How do you cope with uncertainty in your organisation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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