A few years ago, two executives had to deliver the same bad news to their different employee groups. The company’s sales volume had been less than forecast, so the president told his executive team that he was cutting the company’s operating budget by 10%. After brainstorming ways to both achieve this target reduction and cause the least distress for the company’s 950 employees, the senior managers had come up with a plan. They had trimmed expenses as much as possible, but they still needed to let some people go. Each executive delivered this news to his or her respective employee group. At the end of the meetings, the first employee group booed its executive and security guards had to escort him out of the auditorium for his safety; whereas the second group cheered its executive and spent an hour afterward talking with her and asking her questions.
Even though we are emerging from the current economic recession, many of you are still faced with the same challenge that faced those two executives. You have to deliver bad news to your employees. Wouldn’t it be nice if while doing so you had an outcome similar to that of the second executive? Well, you can. In this article, I am going to share with you the same three strategies that I shared with her—strategies that enabled her to be a good leader in bad times.
You Are the Face of the Economy
Before we cover those strategies, let’s begin with a little background. Fair or not, you are the face of the economy. Even though you are not responsible for creating the financial crisis, you are the one that your employees blame for the hardships they have to suffer. 401(k) and pension plans have been decimated, requiring your employees to delay their retirement dreams; cash flows have been reduced, changing many of your employees’ vacation plans to “staycation” (stay-at-home) ones; furloughs really mean that you are expecting your employees to work more for the same or, in some cases, less pay. All of these things add up to a growing sense of anger in your employees; all that anger needs a focus; and that focus is you. It's your company's name on the top of their depleted retirement account statements and it's your name or signature that appears on the e-mails and letters announcing the cost cutting measures that your company needs to take to survive. So, like it or not, you are the face of the economy and you are the one that gets blamed.
The good news is that your employees don’t have to stay stuck in the blaming state. There are three strategies that you can employ to help them shift from where they are to where they need to be if your organization is to keep moving forward.
1. Don't Take Your Employees’ Anger Personally. Remember, your employees are just scared and frustrated. Don't react negatively or respond defensively; instead, take time to empathize with them. Put yourself in their shoes and ask how you would feel if you were used to doing something one way for 5 or 10 or even 20 years and then overnight you were expected to do things differently.
It’s important to keep in mind that most employees are not as comfortable as leaders with making changes. In fact, the latest research in neuroscience shows that for most employees, change is painful; it literally hurts. And most of us remember from our introductory psychology classes that our primary response to pain is anger. Change=Pain=Anger. It’s not personal; it’s biological. Therefore, the key is not to react defensively to those negative emotions, but to step back and try to understand them.
2. Add Compassion and Positive Outcomes to Your Communications. Understanding the reasons for your employees’ anger sets the stage for you to do something about it. The first thing that you want to do is relieve their pain and distress by letting them know that you care and by giving them positive things to focus on. The simplest way to do this is by modifying the words you speak or write when you communicate with your employees.
For example, begin your e-mails with emotion-rich statements that convey your empathy with the distresses and frustrations that your employees are experiencing. In your conversations with employees, focus on the positive outcomes that you expect to occur as a result of the changes that everyone is making. This may be a difficult strategy to implement, as research shows that most leaders place little value on positive emotions like compassion and empathy, but it can be done. With work and practice, no matter where you are starting from, you can end up like my client, the second executive, whose story began this article.
3. Increase Your Physical Presence Among Employees. Don't hide out, entrench, or be afraid of the negative emotions that your employees are displaying. Muster your corporate courage and wade into them. Since you are not only the face of the economy, but also the face of the company, show them that the company cares about them and is optimistic about its future. Your smiling, calm presence will have an encouraging and soothing effect on your employees’ emotions.
We psychologists call this the contagion effect—your employees will catch your mood—but for it to work, you have to be among them. Remember what you learned in strategy #1 and don't be surprised when you are initially greeted with neutrality or even hostility. Use the compassionate and positive words that you developed in strategy #2 as you are interacting with your employees and eventually they will come around.
If you are not used to being so personal with your employees, I invite you to start out by just saying “hello” or “good morning” to each of your employees at the beginning of your work day.
The three strategies that I have presented for being a good leader in bad times are simple, yet not easy. For some, they may be very difficult. Nevertheless, I believe you are up to the challenge; after all, you didn’t get to where you are by taking the easy way out.