Tough Times for Managers, Too

Business Week

January 6, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

Many employees are feeling unsure and discouraged. Managers need to help people in their companies adjust to new realities.

Since my area of expertise is helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior, I will focus on behavioral challenges that I believe managers may face in 2009.

As I travel around the country. I am struck by the huge numbers of employees who are feeling hurt and afraid—more than I’ve seen at any other time in my life.

We are living in a time of unprecedented uncertainty and ambiguity. No one is really sure what is going to happen with the global economy, the U.S. economy, or even their own careers.

Over and over I hear: “What is happening now is not going to be as bad the Great Depression.” While this statement is probably true, it is not particularly encouraging for two reasons: 1) Nothing in the history of our economy has been as bad as the Great Depression. The fact that our future is going to be better than the worst time in our entire economic history does not build much confidence. 2) Why are so many people saying this so often? When people deny over and over again that something could possibly happen, it is clear that they are afraid that it may happen.

As a manager, you need to understand the secondary implications of millions of people losing 30%-60% of their net worth:

Many employees who were planning to retire can’t. They thought that their financial future was set. They were prepared to live a lifestyle that required an income they no longer can count on. They have gone from seeing working after age 62 as an option to seeing working as a requirement. They are hurt because years of their life savings have been lost. They are angry because they have made investments that they believed were secure which turned out to be risky. They are afraid because rather than looking forward to leaving their job, they are terrified of not having a job.

Many employees have learned that their parents who seemed to be financially secure are not. They are now not only worried about taking care of their children, who are facing a crashing job market, they are worried about taking care of their parents, who are reading plummeting 401(k) reports.

Many employees have lost faith in Corporate America. I am a regular reader of and participant in the online business press. I have been amazed at the increase in anger and disgust shown by “regular” people when they discuss major corporations, particularly the leaders of major corporations.

The hurt, fear, and anger than I am describing will seldom, if ever, be discussed with you as a manager. The fact that these concerns are not discussed doesn’t mean that they are not there or that you should not be mindful of them.

One of the most professional organizations that I know has told me of a rapid increase in anger, tears, and inappropriate emotional reactions to seemingly minor events. When people are hurt and angry before they come to work, the “little things” that they used to be able to take in stride can push them over the edge and result in uncharacteristic and unprofessional behavior.

My suggestions for you, as a manager are:

Help more, and judge less. Realize that the unusual behavior you are observing may have deeper causes that are not being openly discussed. Be more empathetic and tolerant than you may have been in the past.

Go out of your way to help people who are down. 2009 will likely be a tough year. You may have to deal with people who have unusual amounts of stress. Do whatever you can to help them.

Try to encourage people to focus on the future as much as they can. Spending time on what could have been or what used to be is not going to help you, them, or your organization. You, your employees, and your business should focus on what you can change—not what you cannot change.

Be aware of your own emotional reactions. You may have just lost a large part of your own net worth. You may have just lost all of the money that you saved for the past several years. You may feel hurt, angry, and insecure yourself. Try not to over-react. As a manager, focus on being as professional as you can. And, whatever you do, don’t take out your own anger and frustration on your employees, your friends, or your family members.

I hope that this advice is helpful for you as we start a challenging new year.