Well – who do we shoot?
Assigning blame in the post-recession era.
The ripple effects from the 2008/2009 financial market meltdown have crossed oceans and industries. The numbers boggle the mind — dwarfing the losses associated with the dot-com bust. Even those organizations that appear to be unscathed are holding their breath as the economic drama unfolds in 2009.
Meanwhile nearly everyone is angry, fearful or frustrated — customers, employees and investors large and small. A recent commentary by A.O. Scott in The New York Times described the helplessness that many of us feel by comparing the situation to a scene from the 1940’s movie “The Grapes of Wrath”.
Clearly, most of us won’t shoot anyone. Most of us do, however, want to know who’s to blame — who’s accountable.
So as your employees ponder these questions, are you and your fellow leaders ducking for cover?
It’s tempting to retreat from employee emotions, avoid the topic altogether or defend your innocence as part of the larger community of victims. Don’t.
Put yourself out there in the line of fire.
First make sure you’re visible. As much as you and your peers may need heads-down, closed-door time to rework strategies or crunch numbers, your workforce wants accessible leaders. Visibility reassures. It says “we as leaders intend on stepping up and addressing these issues head on…if there are difficult decisions to make, we’ll make them and keep you informed.” Visibility also allows informal dialogue, a more personal setting for employee questions.
Being visible isn’t about bringing your workforce to you for a series of meetings. Rather, you need to go where they are. Bring yourself — and your message — to the communities that exist and the conversations already occurring throughout your organization. Join weekly sales meetings, drop by lunch groups, post to your firm’s social network and ask to kick off scheduled training sessions virtually or in person.
Acknowledge emotions… sincerely. As a leader you may spend hours agonizing over your messages to employees, knowing that clear, frequent communication can quell rumors, re-focus energy and assuage anxiety. But have you considered why people might discount everything you say?
Your employees may be questioning why you didn’t have a better contingency plan for a soft market — “I mean, didn’t you guys see this coming?” They may not understand why you laid off half of their department. They may be wondering how much you knew by when — and what you know now that you haven’t yet shared. They may have lost faith in your competence or trustworthiness because you’re called a “leader” — just like all those other executives in the news who seem to care more about their bonuses than their workforce. They are disillusioned, worried and angry. And it doesn’t matter whether their cynicism is influenced by your own actions or by the behavior of leaders they’ve met only through media. They’re not likely to be a receptive audience.
Don’t offer up the pabulum of “it’s a leader’s job to make the tough decisions.” Your workforce knows that. Forget the generalities like “I can sense anger” or “I know that everyone is worried.” They’ll fall flat and sound insincere.
To successfully acknowledge emotions you need to really think about what, specifically, employees are feeling and why.
- How is your organization’s situation affecting them personally?
- What have they lost — or are afraid to lose?
- What “undiscussables” are on their minds?
Bring up the subject and take accountability:
- “I know some of you are angry with me about this decision… and it’s understandable that you feel that way… and I want to talk about it… “
- “You may be thinking, ‘What in the world were leaders like me doing while our customers started canceling orders… I think you deserve an answer… I want to address that today…”
As a leader, it’s your job to stand in the firing line — at least metaphorically. The sooner you step into the tension of employee emotions and honestly acknowledge them, the better. Your candor and accountability as a leader is the first step for helping your workforce move from the paralyzing effects of uncertainty and negative reactions to change toward positive actions that will fuel your organization’s success in this sour economy whether it persists 3 months or 3 years.