Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Get off the log, be prepared

I wrote this a few months ago as a guest post for another blog. Much to the delight of this fangirl, the blog owner decided to write his own posts again. But, no sense in letting my post float in digital limbo pending uncertain publication, so here it is.

In this harsh economy, corporate restructurings, downsizings, and radical operations changes are daily news. When the corporate gods hurl stones at you, do you ever find yourself linking arms with your fellows around the fire at Camp Commiseration for the Woefully Wronged, swapping horror stories and plotting against the evil overlords? Right…me neither. But let’s pretend.

Managers and HR pros are the faces of the corporation and first-line contacts for employees. How we act during corporate transitions can make a critical difference for how employees adjust to the new normal. So, when stones are pelting us, it’s time to get off of our logs by the campfire, pull up our hiking shorts, and lead our campers to a better trail.

I’ve found that I need to acknowledge what’s going on in my heart and head before I can make deliberate choices about how to act. Otherwise, I’ll act on instinct—that natural fight-or-flight response—which may not be in the best interests of employees (or the business).

Start by examining personal emotional responses (feelings and actions) to a variety of stressful situations. For example, when people take sides, my kneejerk emotion is anxiety, and my instinctive action is to mediate to make that nasty, anxiety-causing conflict go away. When someone dominates, I feel devalued, so I want to disengage (i.e., pout). When I see someone misleading others, I feel betrayed and want to refute them. When my livelihood is at risk, I panic and plan escape routes. Try it:
Your organization has just announced a complete restructuring, including a large workforce reduction, facility closures, consolidated business units, and project/product eliminations.
  1. How do you feel and what does that make you want to do? (Don’t ponder, go with your gut.)
  2. Take a deep breath and own it. Emotions aren’t right or wrong, they just are.
  3. How do your employees (and company) need you to act? Was that your gut response? If so, great. If not, go to #4.
  4. What can you do to remind yourself of what you should do when your emotions are driving you? Put a plan in place now so that, under stress, you don’t revert to instinctive action.
To make it manageable, look for patterns. My responses to a variety of emotions boil down to a small set of characteristic actions. By recognizing my trigger emotions and how they drive my instinctive actions, I can make conscious choices under stress, choosing whether to act on instinct or not. (I try, anyway.) I’ve even changed some of my natural reactions over time.

CAUTION: Don’t rationalize misguided actions with cleverly disguised fight-or-flight responses. Consider:
Your boss just told you that you are losing your job in a restructuring. Do you want your boss to:
  1. “Bolster your confidence” by emphasizing that it’s nothing personal (i.e., dismiss your feelings)
  2. “Comfort you” by saying not to worry, things will be fine (i.e., dismiss the impact on your life)
  3. “Show solidarity” by relating their own tale of woe (i.e., make it all about them)
  4. “Support you” by being your new best friend (i.e., seek absolution from you)
  5. “Be honest with you” by noting the decision was made without them (i.e., cut off your feedback channel since your boss lacks influence)
  6. Listen to you empathetically and offer relevant facts on next steps (i.e., do their job)
I bet you’ve seen or felt all of these. Now, wear your boss hat. What’s your instinctive response? (Mine is #5, a form of flight. My plan is to shut up and go to #6 when I hear myself say, “To be honest…”)

For those of us leading through career- and life-altering transitions, these are emotionally brutal times. If you haven’t experienced this, I hope you never do. Still, wise camp leaders know to be prepared.

As homage to my favorite management blogger, Paul Smith, and his ability to choose corresponding musical references, I tried to find a Camper Van Beethoven song to match the camping metaphor, but my instincts chose the campy Nothing Painted Blue’s “Swivelchair” instead.
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Michelle Drabik, Technical Services Manager at Energizer, has over 25 years of leadership experience in consumer products. She currently manages Energizer’s global library, experimental battery testing groups, and Analytical Sciences department, and has worked in R&D and competitive intelligence. She helped design and deploy many OD initiatives on diversity, continuous improvement, management, collaboration, and KM.

This post reflects the author’s personal opinion and may not be the opinion of Energizer.

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