Since the 2008 recession we have been living in turbulent economic times. While some industries have seen great growth others still struggle with recovery. Technology and new business models have required many organizations to re-engineer for the new economy. Even high growth companies will eventually hit a point of market saturation or maturity and need to make changes.
Economic conditions and market forces will put most organizations on the defensive at one time or another. Terms like “survival mode”, “crisis mode”, “cost cutting”, “restructuring”, “org. effectiveness”, “downsizing”, “workforce rationalization” become the buzzwords that permeate organizations dealing with difficult times. While these terms all instill a sense of urgency, they tend to do more damage to an organization’s culture than good. The activities related to restructuring are all very important to secure an organization’s long term success, however the messaging to employees must be given much care.
As organizations face difficult times, their employees are really looking to the leadership of the organization to provide some clear direction. There is an incredible thirst in most organizations for a rallying cry. Many companies find themselves in desperate need of a new vision. Employees are feeling more and more discouraged as they see their benefits cut, fellow co-workers jobs eliminated and the overall health of their organizations declining. Internet and newspaper headlines about an organizations struggles coupled with the somber environment within many offices can take a serious toll on employee morale.
The sentiment and impact on employee morale is a global issue, not limited to one country or one industry. People are genuinely fearful about losing their jobs. One of the key problems is that the messaging from leadership is too infrequent and when it does occur often it is off message. Often leadership tries to motivate and instill a sense of urgency by talking about being in “Survival mode”. The problem with survival mode thinking is that it can be very debilitating for an organization. How can you inspire a workforce to sell products, design future goods and services and serve the customer when the focus is on survival? Survival mode gives the impression that death is imminent.
Instead organizations must shift the dialogue. While hope is not a strategy, hope is a critical success factor. It is much healthier to think of a turnaround as more of a rebirthing. If a company’s life cycle is truly circular then from decline you enter rebirth. Under that scenario organizations facing the harsh reality should be operating in “startup mode”. People join a startup based on the promise of future success. Startups are willing to take risks and energize their employees to think big. Employees are engaged based on the future promise. Most startups operate in the red and their employees don’t get paid very well.
What motivates the employees to work like hell is the opportunity to build something great.
It is the job of leadership to truly believe that they have the opportunity in front of them and to sell the organization on a bright future. It is important to acknowledge the challenges ahead, but even more important to highlight the organizational assets whether it be the very talented people, a great brand, patent protection, a global footprint, etc..
What most organizations really need is something to excite their employees. The leadership team needs to paint an image of what this organization can become. It may be a totally different organization selling very different products in different markets than anyone had envisioned, but at the core the organization should have passionate people working hard to enhance the brand and make the company great once again.
Leadership needs to be more visible in tough times than at any other time.
That means holding weekly town hall style meetings with employees. Getting out to the various office locations for informal meetings is critical. There are numerous ways to leverage today’s technology to enable better communication. One simple and cost effective way is via video vignettes from the leadership team. The key to an effective employee communication plan is the leverage multiple channels to share the same message. Just as most of us do with mainstream media consuming it on TV, radio, newspaper and internet, employees want to get their messaging via multiple channels. The best practice is to release the same information simultaneously via multimedia.
Communication should not just be one way. There must be a feedback mechanism so that the leadership can hear the voice of the employee as well. Informal surveys and email suggestion boxes are simple ways to solicit feedback from employees. The leaders must be in touch with the morale of the employees and take cues from the employees as to whether or not their communications are effectively getting through.
Keeping employees informed will go a long way towards keeping them engaged. Too much silence leads to rumor and speculation. Better to be transparent and tell it like it is, just keep the message focused on the positive and the future. Your employees will reward you by working harder and getting your organization through these tough times if you keep them focused on creating a brighter future.