Getting Beyond Survive To Thrive At Work

Guest post by Eileen Habelow:

According to Randstad’s 2009 World of Work survey, an alarming number of workers surveyed (83%) feel fortunate to have a job. Why do I say alarming?

While this sentiment might simply be an expression of gratitude for some, I believe it is just as likely that this response reflects a distinct undertone of survival mentality – just grateful, just thankful, just fortunate.

So, what is the impact of survival mentality? Survival mentality tends to put people into a defensive mode – a reactive and protective stance. When employees are in survival mode, they are constantly looking over their shoulders or in the proverbial rearview mirror for the other shoe to drop. The impact is lower productivity and less focus on the job.

Adding to the premise of a survival mentality is fear. The same survey also revealed that 52 percent fear for their economic well-being! This response alone provides a clear picture of the roller coaster of emotions that employees bring into the workplace. Couple fear with a steady diet of predominately negative news – job losses, dwindling consumer confidence, institutions in financial turmoil, recession – and the recipe is the same: lower productivity and less focus on the job at hand.

So, how do we help employees get from survive to thrive with the swirling of negativity all around? What can we do to encourage the language of an environment that thrives? How can we facilitate or create a workforce that has a forward-looking, windshield outlook instead of a rearview mirror viewpoint? The answer is communicate, communicate and communicate some more!

Tell them all that you can tell them. Paranoia is a killer! During a tough time at work, silence is NOT golden and no news is NOT good news! When employers leave ‘dead air’ in the workplace instead of open communication lines, paranoia will set in; and with paranoia comes the survival mentality I previously mentioned. There is always something that can be communicated to the workforce even if it is ‘no decisions have been made, but we are working on it’. While there will always be information and news that cannot be shared, make sure to share what you can. This communication helps to keep employees from wondering what just happened and what might happen next. Over communicate during a tough time and be as transparent as possible to keep your employees informed.

Pay close attention to your top performer. Often times, we assume that our best employees already know that they are the best and that they must know how important they are to the company. Wrong. How many times has your company been surprised by the exit of a key performer after it was too late to convince him or her to stay? Even the most confident performers can have doubtful moments during a tough economic time. Sales, results, growth and profit can all be down for even the best formers so it’s critical for your most important employees to know (for sure) that they are valued and why they are valued. This can be as simple as a personal conversation that discusses the employee’s value and seeks to discover what is most important to them at the moment. Bottom line: make sure the employees you value most know that they are valued.

Be clear about why some are gone and why some are still here. Honesty is the best policy. You may think that you are saving face for those who have been let go, but while you may soften the blow (very temporarily, by the way) of those who exit, you could be doing damage to the perceptions of those who are left. If every layoff brings a company line of ‘it was just a business necessity’, those who survive the layoff may NOT know why they are still around. You know what comes next…they are ‘just grateful’ to have a job. Consider instead communicating specifics around why decisions were made and what impact those decisions will have on those who remain. Of course you can customize the reasons for your situation, but the key is telling employees why they are still here and why they are valuable to the company. That alone can encourage employees to look forward for the next goal without feeling a sense of guilt or speculating as to why some are gone.

Avoid credibility killers. When talking with employees, you are representing the company as a leader. Avoid using phrases like ‘the company’ or ‘upper management’ – they are surefire credibility killers. Another quick credibility killer is ‘the boss and I really think you need to get your game together’. Every time you bring someone else into the room for a tough conversation (literally or figuratively), it may make the conversation easier for you, and you may even think it softens the blow, but consider how you instantly demote yourself when you relegate the decision to someone higher up. You may even inadvertently communicate that you are not the leader your position suggests you should be.

Focus on the goals and be clear about the role. Find a common destination or a shared goal that is guaranteed to get employees looking forward, through the windshield. Then get all employees moving in the same direction toward the goal by establishing clear roles and expectations for each employee. Again, this focus will get your employees looking forward and help each employee be clear about what they bring to the table.

Dr. Eileen Habelow is the Senior Vice President of Organizational Development at Randstad US. Eileen’s formal education has been focused on instructional design and educational psychology. Her professional experience has ranged from learning and development, sales and operations, and organizational effectiveness.