Sunday, November 8, 2009

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.


Brittany Moore said...

This makes so much sense...during times like this employees are in survival mode and are so worried about what is going to happen next that they don't focus on their job. I definitely agree that communication is key because it allows all of your employees to feel like they are in the loop. I agree about the credibility killers because I have witnessed a manager using phrases like that and I agree that it only makes them look as if they don't have the courage to deliver the news themselves or they don't have the reasons to back-up their decisions.

Robyn Hatcher said...

I totally agree with your post. I just read an article in the November 9, Newsweek about the difference in cognitive growth, (basic language and speaking skills) of children whose parents reason with them and those whose parents command them. Amazing that the way we are communicated to actually affects our mental development. I've been talking about these differences for quite awhile. When I work with supervisors in some of my leadership communication training. I often get the question: "Why can't I just tell them what to do? It's their job and I'm their boss." I usually tell them that of course they can demand obedience from their subordinate staff members but that it will come at a price. Usually the price is bad attitude; lack of motivation; unconscious or conscious sabotage; high turnover; increase in sick days; and the list goes on. Of course, some supervisors have the luxury of firing workers who exhibit those habits. But then, many employees these days are so protected by their unions that firing is not an option. This of course could lead to a conversation about how the unions have empoyers by the short hairs. But maybe it should lead to a conversation about how to develop leaders to adopt are more reasonable (compassionate) style of communication. Instead of demanding, ordering or even instructing something be done, why not try explaining the reasoning and the need behind it. It may on the surface look like it will take more time, but in actuality, it may save time, energy, stress, hard feelings, disciplinary warnings and pink slips. This of course does NOT mean to become a doormat and allow the employee to run the show by debating all of your requests. It simply means giving the employee sound reasoning behind your decisions. If the employee still wants to buck a request which you believe will improve your work place, bottom line or organization, then it's time to dust off the disciplinary code book. There are still many employees (and children) who have no problem doing just what they are told but I believe that these individuals might be happier and more productive if they were treated as though their imput and opinions mattered.

Gregory Anastassatos said...

I think this post is right on, but I think something is missing. It involves emotional labor and burnout. I work in service industry and their have been a lot of lay offs and hours have been cut back. The front line employees are supposed to be friendly and act like nothing is wrong, and the emotional labor is causing everyone to burnout. It just so happens the performance evaluations are going on too, so they are working even harder to meet or exceed customer service standards just so they are not the next ones to go.

Roy Atkinson said...

Referring to your section "Avoid credibility killers" - How would you handle delivering a message with which you absolutely disagree, and your team know that you do? Isn't your credibility doomed either way?

Unknown said...

Hi Eileen,

Thanks for the insights. This was a really great article. I love your approach through communication. You are right on when it comes to providing information to prevent paranoia. Also, great point about making sure your top performers know that they are appreciated. I have seen a person leave my place of work, simply because they didn't know that their hard work was truly appreciated. Thanks for being a guest on Dan's blog - I hope to see you back here!


Anonymous said...

When you have a problem employee who you know will be a problem it is prudent to have someone else in authority in the room with you.

Ajo Cherian said...

I have certainly been guilty of "credibility killers" in my former job. I often felt it was easier to deliver bad news or have action taken when I let the employee know the decision came from higher up. Never realized it would be such a credibility killer. Thanks, now I can be vigilant about it and improve.

Dan McCarthy said...

All -
Thanks for your comments and questions on Eileen's guest post. I've invited her to weigh in and respond, so I hope to hear from her soon.

Eileen Habelow ( said...

Eileen here... thanks for the comments back -- the dialog is great. The tough discussions we have to have with employees are definitely part emotion, part business. Roy -- I do agree that sometimes we are put between 'the rock and the hard place'. We have to communicate decisions that we would not have necessarily made on our own. It is also very situational, but I would say that as a leader in the company we still have to take some heat that is not necessarily ours to own. I can be honest and let the person know this was a tough decision, a decision I surely wish I did not have to communicate, but I still stick with the plan to NOT envoke someone else's name in the decision. I have to take some ownership b/c I represent the company in some situations.

Robyn, I need to find that article -- we are surely emotional beings -- words are valuable, but tone and approach have 10x's more impact! I think that is a great area of rearch to pursue and include in our future discussions with managers.

Anonymous, I totally agree -- prudent, indeed, to have someone physically in the room for a situation you anticipate to be combative. I would still say that the message to the employee needs to be your message.... or someone else is making your decision for you, which is where the credibility-killing comes in.