Care And Growth In Times Of Adversity

August 10, 2016 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology, Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

It’s 2016 and in world terms the oil price has dropped from over $100/barrel to less than $40/barrel. Chinese stock markets fall 5% in one week. Customers are extending the life of their products to maximum before replacement.

What does that mean for a normally-successful company?

Redundancies of hundreds of people in a division, closure of a recently launched regional expansion, cancelling a step-change major project.

This can mean losing promising, talented, and creative people.

Leaders can struggle with how to react when the business makes such decisions.

For most people it’s not actually about the decisions. There’s nothing we can do about them. It is more about how to cope with them.

Specifically, how do we as leaders focus on developing people and convincing them of our positive intent when business decisions seem to imply that they are expendable?

How can Care and Growth help us handle this sort of situation, avoiding a turn to cynicism and loss of morale?

Fundamentally there are only two choices: to GIVE or TAKE.

These unfortunate events can bring out the worst in human beings. They may fuel the twin TAKING qualities of Greed and Fear.

Fear as in “who’s next?” Greed in the worst case would operate on both sides of a separation package. That is why people leave with huge severance packages but can, in some cases, still feel bitter and resentful.

Those who choose to GIVE operate on the opposite qualities to fear and greed which are Generosity and Courage.

Generosity and courage are displayed in many ways, but in these circumstances probably by:

  1. Compassion (which requires listening).
  2. Being as fair as possible.

Let’s deal with fairness first via an example. A restaurant in a mining town has many customers and requires two world-class chefs to meet the need. All is going well until the mine, for reasons unrelated to the restaurant, decides to scale back operations and people start leaving town. Soon the restaurant only has enough customers to provide meaningful work (tasks and decisions) for one world-class chef to be empowered. It’s not the manager’s fault; it’s just the way things are. The manager must, however, make one of the chefs redundant – for both of their sakes, in the long run.

What matters most at this stage is the manner in which this is done.

Care and Growth talks clearly about doing things for the sake of the “other”.

The leader’s role must focus, as in good times, on using the TASKS AT HAND to EMPOWER (grow) people.

Empowerment requires a TASK OR SET OF TASKS (for which leaders provide the MEANS and ABILITY), but it also requires ACCOUNTABILITY.

If the set of tasks reduces (for instance, a client of ours has a diminishing market and there are simply fewer things to do to satisfy the market need) then we cannot perform our leadership role effectively without restructuring. Again, it’s nobody’s fault necessarily; it’s just the way things are.

In the same way, we cannot continue to hold people fairly ACCOUNTABLE if we don’t have enough income to reward them fairly. Again here, restructuring is consistent with Care and Growth because without doing it we couldn’t continue to perform our leadership role of holding people accountable effectively. It is unfortunate, but often an unavoidable fact of life.

Therefore it is worth helping people draw the conclusion that it is the leader’s difficult task to match the people (number and skillsets) to the tasks and income (for fair accountability) available to any organisation on an ongoing basis.

Two further thoughts on the courage required to demonstrate fairness:

  1. Redundancy is not a proxy to deal with poor performers. At an extreme, rewarding people who have been retired on the job for years with a handsome redundancy package is not appropriate giving.
  2. To avoid overload and burnout of those remaining and to truly empower them to grow takes leadership courage to take tasks off the table, remove or delay initiatives, determine and stick with the priorities. This is not easy to do! It means having the guts to say “no”, but all the time holding people accountable for what they do have the means and ability to do.

Compassion seems more obvious. Generosity is about compassion and giving of time to communicate (over and over again) and to LISTEN. Leaders are often surprised at how much insecurity comes to the fore in these situations. People who are highly valued and would be protected at all costs nevertheless feel hugely insecure. The leadership task is to ascertain where each direct report is at in the situation (ask, don’t assume) and respond appropriately. For leaders this means showing compassion for those who are leaving, and focusing even more on making sure that people who stay do their absolute best work with the means available.

One of the greatest things a leader can give in a time of chaos – because that’s what it is in the aftermath and what it will be for at least 6-12 months – is clarity.

Remembering what the big picture is and that our contribution helps people avoid becoming victims and turns their energy to something beneficial.

In the case of a UK technology company, its high level purpose is to “work together, applying our expertise in advanced materials and technology to innovate and improve solutions that optimise the use of natural resources and enhance the quality of life for the people of the world, both for today and for the future”. This is a noble cause indeed.

The real question for everyone in a redundancy situation is what can I/should I be giving here? If you are personally affected, don’t allow yourself to be a victim in the situation. If you are in a leadership role, understand that your response demonstrates to your people quite clearly what your real capacity is for generosity and courage. Whose interests are you really serving?

So what do we focus on at such times? It can be helpful to place specific emphasis on safety and quality (be it quality of product or service or research etc). Both of these “sit in our hands”, both significantly affect the bigger picture, and both serve to reduce the focus on “what we’re getting and what they’re getting” financially.

If you, for instance, shift your personal focus to cost reduction, it can be easy to get distracted by thoughts around “what is happening to all this money I’m saving” and “I’m saving more than her, so what am I getting versus her”.

On the other hand, if your focus can be on “how am I going to continue to do a safe and quality job with fewer resources?”, then it’s easier to focus on giving.

In summary, there are only seven things you can do with Care and Growth in good times – and actually, in time of adversity your leadership role stays the same. In fact, a crisis is an opportunity for a leader to truly show his/her intent by being absolutely specific in which of the seven possibilities to give in every moment of the crisis. If anything, leaders simply need to be even more deliberate and careful in what they give.

The seven things you can give:

  1. Care
  2. Means
  3. Ability (How and Why?)
  4. Recognition
  5. Reward
  6. Censure
  7. Punishment
Wendy Lambourne
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