Survivor “Damn Lucky”

Counter-intuitively, organizations tend to find difficulty prioritizing their employee engagement efforts during challenging environments. In fact, during this recession many have executed a status quo strategy, which communicates to their single greatest resource that you are “damn lucky to still be here”. Take a moment to think about this – has this been your organizations approach to engagement?

Therein lies the issue! If we tell our recession survivors they’re lucky to have a job and yet we label them our greatest remaining resource, we are sending mixed messages.

My Story

In 2009, my marketing staff went from 8 to 5 during the recession and all open and prospective hires were put on hold. Already my team was doing more with less, keeping them motivated and focused on competing priorities became a daily challenge. In addition, my boss was let go and the tsunami of work, meetings and political ambiguity was overwhelming.   There was a lack of information about our future from the company.  The rumors built upon themselves. Senior leadership was vague and locked away for the most part.

We were being told “out loud” that we were vital to the success of the company, but through every action that the company made, we were being screamed at “You are lucky you have a job!” I soon found myself in the disengaged category along with my direct reports.

This type of ambiguous environment only breeds jealousy, territorialism, unhealthy competition and paranoia. As if the previous environmental descriptors weren’t enough to hamper efficient productivity, another episode of “Survivor: Corporate America” could do major long term damage including a major fallout of employee retention come late 2011 when wholesale hiring comes back. Until then, it is critical that organizations engage and align their current talent to the mission critical strategy at hand.

The First Step

So, you are thinking…with limited budgets and competing organizational priorities what can an organization do to engage and leverage their greatest resource? One firm, after 2 rounds of layoffs decided the next round would cut to the critical core of their talent base. They had no other option but to furlough their people (i.e., pay cut). So what did they do?  Did they hide?  Did they issue an edict from their corporate offices on the 10th floor?  Did they let their minions tell the bad news?

No, they announced this tough decision and related details on a company wide conference call. Senior leadership fielded questions in an open QA format (i.e., they didn’t hide!), also committing to personal pay cuts (i.e., shared the pain) and reassuring that no further layoffs would likely occur (i.e., gave hope). People went back to their desks relieved, and engaged with a renewed sense of commitment from the firm.

In a simple, open conference call, Senior Management had restored trust.  This is vital to being engaged.

So what do you need to do first?

Communicate, communicate, communicate! Corporate wide conference calls and internal email campaigns are not enough however.

Leadership needs to be seen in person.

Transparency needs to occur from the top down and the bottom up on a consistent basis with a distinct communication strategy for reengagement to occur. Executives tend to hole up in their corner offices and weather the storm when cuts and layoffs are under way which is the contrary to what is needed. Employees need transparency, full awareness and sense of connection to the current strategy and future vision. They also need a platform to verbalize their input without political or cultural risk.

The furloughs are temporal, promotions and raises come back along with incentive programs, however the sentiments of disengagement are residual within your workers core emotions. Despite your renewed initiatives in recovery, they decided to divorce you 6 or 9 months ago when their boss was taken out and all trust was broken. Executive leaders, dump you incentive plans for now, company pick-nicks and the like, communication should be you first priority!

Executive leadership should emerge from their veils of recession behavior and spend time in the trenches soliciting honest conversations which are off the record. Connection to Senior Leadership is a key driver to engagement that can be earned instantly. Ambiguity can be addressed from the bottom up just as well as broader campaigns from the top down when employees have an empowered voice.  Idea and suggestion generation programs can empower your workforce giving them the sense that they drive the solution and are not a burden the firm currently confronts in driving revenues and achieving profitability.

Communication, like in any relationship is the first step to rebuilding engagement health.

Blog away!

Guest blog by Paul Schoening, MBA;

About Paul; Paul is a successful marketing and business development professional with experience in several industries over more than 20 years. During this period he’s worked for Gage Marketing Group, BI (Business Incentives), Korn/Ferry International as well as founding his own company. He was most recently with Korn/Ferry International as Global Director of Marketing in their talent management consulting division.