Saturday, October 21, 2017

Managing During the Downturn

Nothing has prepared today’s leaders for the current economic situation. Managers getting knocked off their feet...

By Richard McGourty and Carl Robinson

Published on Workforce Management, August 2009


Nothing has prepared today's leaders for the current economic situation. As a result, managers who were once balanced and poised are being knocked off their feet, with their teams feeling the brunt of their increasingly ineffective behavior. But leaders can learn to recognize the effect the downturn is having on people, and then take some practical steps to steady the state of their organizations.

We recently conducted a developmental assessment of an executive who is clearly a victim of the current economic crisis. We began by gathering 360-degree feedback, and when the results came in, they were dismal in every way. To sum up his observers’ perceptions, he had “checked out” and seemed completely disengaged from his leadership responsibilities.

We met with him to present the findings and worried about how he would take the tough news. At the end of our presentation, we asked how he was feeling. He simply replied, “Not good.” After a period of silence, he went on, “Look, let me describe a terrific day at work: I drive in early, get to the building before everyone else, go into my office and close the door. If I am really lucky, by the time I leave at the end of the day, they’re all already gone!”

Knee deep in the recession and unclear about what to say or do, this executive has chosen to retreat. Unfortunately, he is not alone.

Nothing has prepared today’s leaders for the current economic situation. Stories of the Great Depression and other similar periods remain just that: stories. In this demanding and turbulent environment, organizations tend to become increasingly irrational places, and leaders cast very long shadows. New conflicts are likely to emerge, ordinary concerns can blow up into significant events, and productivity often takes a back seat to distraction.

As a result, managers who were once balanced and poised are being knocked off their feet, with their teams feeling the brunt of their increasingly ineffective behavior. Most feel enormous responsibility to step up and deliver, and yet very few actually know what they should do.

These pressures are what forced our executive to go radio silent and declare, “A good day is a day in hiding.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. Leaders can learn to recognize the effect the downturn is having on people, and then take some practical steps to steady the state of their organizations.

We see four basic threats to the productivity of a business and to the well-being of the people who work there, and offer four specific sets of management actions that can help leaders address them. The threats are:

  1. Worry and fear of unemployment
  2. The fragmenting of the workplace into competing groups of “us vs. them”
  3. Pervasive uncertainty, which paralyzes thinking and invites distracting speculation
  4. High levels of personal stress that can turn into serious distress