A Stress Doc Survival Guide: Part I
As the parade of corporate scandals increasingly lengthens, and the numbers on the sidelines waving bye to their stock options, 401Ks, savings and livelihoods increases, let's try a positive spin. Perhaps these CEOs were motivated less by criminal greed and more for the common good. It's well known that Americans have a decided problem with obesity. Despite all the downsizing and consolidating, rightsizing and frightsizing of the past and present, maybe the troops were still not sufficiently "lean-and-mean." Well Enron and Arthur, World.com and Martha…thank you. With our wallets shrunk, if not our waistlines, I believe many of us now are finally "lean-and-MEAN."
And whatever the economic context for this corporate crisis -- whether dimensions global or criminal, irrational exuberance of investors or plain mismanagement of decision-makers -- simply ranting about corporate execs as a solution only goes so far. (Though let's not minimize the pleasure and, at least, short-term stress relief from skewering criminally greedy, arrogant and hyperinflated egos.) Whether involved in a merger or reduction in force we still have employees and the organization as a whole in serious need of assistance during this turbulent transition. So strategies and steps for reorganizational survival are critical if productivity, coordination and morale are to eventually rebound. And one of the most important survival structures for repairing the doubt and disconnect between individual and organization, between employees and management is the work team.
Part I of this series will focus on five systemic and individual survival elements. While more oversight in the corporate boardroom is needed, for example, some advocate making sure the CEO is not the Chairman of the Board, and that the latter have genuine scrutiny over the former, Part II focuses more on the relationship between top management, supervisors and employees. The article lists five strategies that illuminate how the team can become the nucleus for grieving and healing and the rebuilding of trust by: a) recognizing the loss of key personnel and integrating new team players, practices, emotional processing, etc., b) developing a more inclusive team decision-making process, c) coordinating new or modified working relationships in teams and departments and d) and interconnecting departments and divisions throughout the organization so all have a better sense of and commitment to the newly evolving big picture.
System-Element Survival Strategies
Let's begin with five macro-micro problem setting and strategies; some begin in anticipation (or in denial) of an impending restructuring:
1. Recognizing Reorganizational Uncertainty. With an organizational climate of mistrust, it may be difficult for all the worker munchkins and low- and mid-level managers at OZ Corp. to know what degree of control the highest execs, like the Wizard, actually have and what's just reorganizational smoke and mirrors. Based on consulting experience, I'm aware of so many external factors, for example, Congress for federal agencies, IT meltdowns and the loss of the tax revenue base for state governments, or globalization issues for corporations, etc., that cloud the reorganizational picture of who's the real captain of the company ship when navigating such turbulent waters.
In this amorphous, uncertain and doubting environment, some employees don't want to focus on precarious possibilities; they shut down critical thinking or, even, push themselves to exhaustion. They work harder and harder to prove their "essential" status. Others, feeling like "pawns" try to battle their anxiety and sense of helplessness while establishing some control by cranking up the old mill. Not surprisingly, in this shadowy climate, with the fear of losing jobs or work hours, the rumor mill often goes into overtime.
Those at the top often make two mistakes, one an error of omission, the other of commission. First, management often does not institute workshops on loss and change that would formally allow employees and supervisors to vent about and better grapple with current conditions. The second error, though not always pre-meditated, is passing along information not grounded in first-hand observation or fact. While this sharing is meant to be reassuring (not simply for defusing anger toward management; let's not be cynical) or at least to help other's see the glass as half empty and half full, such information only fuels rumor-mongering. This is akin to a visually ambiguous projection test triggering multiple interpretations by viewers. Also, some staff may think that by sharing such fanciful information, management takes employees for fools.
What is clear is that these mistakes and missed opportunities can ravage long-term trust and loyalty. When it comes to transmission, better for key decision-makers and information gatekeepers to share less but more substantive data. This directive holds even if the only honest and affirmative statement is, "At this time, I don't know what's going on or what this really means." Truth in reorganizing should not be as dubious as truth in advertising!
2. Being Down and (Breaking) Out. In the early '90s restructuring rumors were flying at the US Postal Service, especially at headquarters and nearby facilities in the Metro-DC area. Still the prevailing attitude was: "We are always going through changes (in operation. No big deal." Alas, what was not foreseen was that Carvin Marvin Runyon was brought in wielding a decidedly "cutting edge" Postmaster General axe. Nationwide, within a year, troop size was reduced by 50,000.
Two categories of employees seemed to survive best the tumultuous transition:
a) the kick-started entrepreneur. I recall one employee declaring he could no longer put all his financial and career security eggs in the postal basket. He had been contemplating starting his own seafood business for years, while doing nothing tangible. Now he was definitely pissed and, perhaps, soon to be RIFfed Off (RIF = Reduction In Force). While not planning to leave the USPS presently, the downsizing was a "kick in the butt" to disprove that his entrepreneurial vision was not just a hallucination.
b) the back to schooler. Another group of folks who saw the opportunity in problems rather than a problem of reduced opportunity were those who decided to go outside for schooling or for additional in-house training. These steps would make them more marketable, provide more flexibility for landing on their feet when the downsizing dust settled…whether inside or out of the Postal Service. (As an aside, while writing the first draft of this article at Teaism, my tea house sanctuary, a fellow at the next table mentioned that in a company downsizing, one person wrangled a leave of absence to work on a novel. In general, I wouldn't count on this option.)
3. Setting Boundaries. For the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), already beset by multiple downsizings in the last few years, post-9/11 has meant you "do even more with less." During a recent Practice Safe Stress Program with the DIA, I was emphasizing the importance of "N & N" - the ability to say "NO" and to "Negotiate" - in light of how "burnout is less a sign of failure and more that we give ourselves away." A mature woman interrupts, challenging my philosophy: "My boss doesn't want to discuss priorities and time factors; he just wants it when he wants it!" The woman briefly listed various ways she's tried to reason with or please her supervisor…without success.
Intently outlining the burnout stages, I was taken aback by her mid-stage declaration. Suddenly, out of the murmuring void, a voice of clarity. A woman, perhaps in her 50s, with years at the agency, said, "I used to have this problem, trying to please my boss; staying till seven or eight almost every night. Eventually, I started getting sick." This wakeup call led to: a) pushing aside her reservations about standing up to authority and b) a serious "N & N" with her supervisor. The result: more control of her work schedule, less stress and improved health, not to mention greater confidence and self-esteem. I affirmed the survival wisdom. The extra-ordinary (occasionally staying till eight or coming in on a weekend, unless you choose to do so more frequently) must not become the ordinary (or routinely expected).
4. Seeking Outside Help. If that problematic boss won't listen to reason, think outside the one-on-one or department box:
a) EAP as Employee Ally. Talk to an Employee Assistance Program counselor or seek private counseling or coaching. The EAP option has several advantages: 1) with your permission, an EAP counselor can speak to your supervisor. This counselor can also facilitate conflict mediation between the antagonistic parties, 2) if discovering that you are not the only disaffected team member, the counselor can suggest a team meeting with the supervisor, with or without an EAP presence. (Several employees from a team or department using EAP services will eventually get management's attention, especially when going on company time.) If the level of trust and degree of openness between employees and a supervisor is compromised, outside facilitation is needed.
b) Call on OD Consultant. Sometimes Human Resources or, even, the EAP (often for confidentiality reasons) will recommend an outside consultant/facilitator. Another consideration is having an "objective" third party with no employment ties to the organization, that is, not simply a (perceived) management mouthpiece. Separate identity and sense of integrity are vital in this intervention role. (The Stress Doc is tested, rested and ready to roll. His motto: "Have Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire!")
c) EAP/Consultant as Supervisor Ally. Finally, supervisors need to use the EAP not simply as a referral option for troubled or troublesome individuals. The best supervisors are those who seek out the EAP Counselor (or an EAP- or HR-referred consultant) for approaches in handling a difficult employee or complex team issue. The worst response by a supervisor is denying or downplaying the adverse effects of a slacker on his or her colleagues. Simply encouraging or expecting others to ignore a "stress carrier" heightens team members' anger and anxiety. ("Will this carrier explode or implode? Will I be hurt by the fallout?" Will a borderline employee have the chance to pull a knife on a new supervisor partly because the supervisor's boss downplayed the violence potential of the employee?) Now both dysfunctional employee and dysfunctional supervisor become a tumor, inevitably eroding morale and productivity of the unit.
5. Following the Way of the Acronyms. Consider these two acronyms to bolster survival capacity during these trying transitional times:
a) Balancing The Triple "A". To affirm an employee's sense of professionalism and sense of responsibility, blend "The Triple 'A': Authority, Autonomy and Accountability." Management must recognize and support an employee's utilization of skills and knowledge, and the desire to have input in relevant decision-making ("Authority"). Workers also want some control of their turf, time frames, tools and operating procedures ("Autonomy"). At the same time, employees must accept the objective and timely review of their work performance. Alas, with all the "Accountability" scandals at the top, I wonder if employees, in noticeable numbers, will start challenging a manager's right to one-dimensionally grade their work quality and quantity.
b) Investing in Organizational IRAs. When people are chronically doing more with less, don't assume they will be (or should be) grateful just having a job in a tight economy. A management team that's concerned about motivation and loyalty or, at least, about the longevity of workplace survivors, makes sure people can earn those IRAs: Incentives, Recognition & Rewards and Advancement Opportunities, including opportunity for needed and desired training.
Part I has identified five macro-micro, organizational-individual strategies and structures for broadly managing the shock and subsequent fallout of a disruptive reorganization. These are: 1) Accepting Reorganizational Uncertainty, 2) Being Down and (Breaking) Out, 3) Setting Boundaries, 4) Seeking Outside Help and 5) Following the Way of the Acronyms. Part II will enumerate five specific team interventions for rebuilding and bonding within the team or departments and for subsystems across the organization as a whole. Hopefully, Parts I and II will heal wounds and regenerate individual, team and organizational energy and spirit while enabling all to…Practice Safe Stress!
Click here to read Part 2