Atmospheric Rivers of Change: The Kind That Sweep Leaders Away

Two groups of people are standing on platforms are separated by an illustrated

Since the first big atmospheric river hit the west in late fall of 2022, I have noticed similarities between how our weather behaves and the macro impacts affecting organizations over the last three years. 

Firstly, a global pandemic resulted in the heartbreaking loss of human life and forced us to challenge workplace tradition. There is an ever-increasing lack of civility in political systems, an aggressor war in Ukraine, racial unrest, and a global economic reality and Wall Street response that has given rise to unprecedented layoffs. Externalities are impacting individuals, teams, and organizations unyieldingly, like a forceful river ready to sweep us away unbiasedly.

For an organization, when the atmospheric river of external factors shifts, multiplies, and cascades on a weekly basis the change caused within organizations is often massively disruptive.

Impacts—or potential threats to entities cause quick, even knee-jerk management decisions that shock the culture. Psychological safety is damaged and productivity slips. Your best talent will often just run to someplace new, reaching for the promise of stability that can rarely be delivered. 

While change is disruptive, organizational change that is chosen and managed—focusing on improvements in efficiency, innovation, collaboration, and alignment to a new vision—can easily predict negative side-effects and team and employee support can be readied in advance to ease transitions. This unplanned change is very disruptive. Organizational change that is put in place for improvement, innovation or alignment to a new vision allows for planning, training and other support. When it is unplanned, the change effort is hectic and loaded with anxiety, and may become toxic as the fear of failure increases in leadership at all levels. 

So what can you do? How is it possible to endure through unplanned, uninvited and unpredictable changes?  

Design your culture for the inevitable, even when times are great.

Company cultures built on a foundation of guiding values that are rooted in the culture have an immediate resiliency. If you as a leader have consistently behaved by these values, taught and lived by them, you are building trust in both your intent and capability. TRUST is the only currency that works in a crisis. If difficult quick decisions must be made to survive, clear communication of your reasoning and a willingness to respectfully listen to concerns will help stabilize your strongest leaders and teams. That doesn’t mean you won’t suffer the loss of a few people or notice a downturn in productivity while people adjust. Frankly, it’s impossible to measure what might be a “final straw” for any person post-pandemic.

If you didn’t define and share a strong foundation of values or have suffered serious culture dilution through rapid growth, you have a very different challenge. If your goal is only to reduce the size of your company, you will succeed. The trouble is without a clear sense of what it will be like to be “here” when things settle down, you will likely lose your best talent.  

In times of tragedy or distress, community connection is more important than ever. Prioritize building your foundation before the inevitable storm.

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