David Barnard examines the various ways in which managers must adapt their role to the recession, and explains how to lead teams successfully through the crisis.
At ten o’clock last night, the tandoori restaurant on the corner of my road was empty. Unheard of. Each evening, I walk home down a street full of restaurants. The staff at the tandoori seem to be doing nothing. But a few hundred yards away waiting staff are not idle. They are standing outside their restaurants pressing special offer leaflets into my hands as I pass. Their jobs have changed. They have moved from looking after customers to join the marketing department.
In this difficult time we all have three choices. We can keep our heads down and hope for the best. We can try to do what we used to do, but better, faster, and cheaper. Or we can ask ourselves whether we have a new job.
The first choice is a normal human reaction to anxiety and stress: pretending that, even though there is a problem, we will be alright. It is a beguiling story we tell ourselves. But it is almost certainly wrong.
Others run faster to do more – sell more, or produce more, or measure things better. Activity can feel good for its own sake. It may make us feel that we are responding responsibly in this crisis, but it’s actually just another form of denial. In its more subtle form this denial may involve cutting costs, or salami-slicing margins, or looking for free credit by paying suppliers later than ever. Thus are recessions transformed into depressions.
We all have new jobs
A better way to think of things is to assume that our role has changed. Like it or not, we all have new jobs in the current climate; even if we have the same title, in the same company. The sooner we recognise this and work out what our new job involves, the more likely it is that we will hang on to a salary. Accepting that we have a new job also helps us deal with the disruption to our habits with equanimity.
For leaders, this recognition is essential to the health of their business and their people. Anxiety and stress diminish peoples’ ability to do their best work, and limit their ability to think creatively.
The wartime spirit
Why do so many British people who lived through the Second World War look back on that time as one of real happiness and contentment? Surely nightly bombing raids, concern for loved ones, and anxiety about what the future would hold should have made it a terrible time for everyone?
Most people experienced a different feeling: commitment to an important activity that contributed to a common effort. The farmer, the fireman, the housewife, the factory worker, the clerk – all knew precisely what they had to do; they could focus on it and know that they were doing the right thing. Grow more food. Put out the fire. Waste nothing.
Leadership in a crisis is different
In workplace after workplace, we hear the same thing: “Level with us about the problem; tell us what we need to be doing differently and let’s pull together to get through it.”
Leaders can help colleagues to put their broader anxieties to one side. Worrying about losing the house or never finding another job are the ‘bombing raids’ of this economic crisis. In this situation, staff need to feel confident that they are doing what is expected of them. They want a productive focus. There are things that they should stop doing, and there are things that they should be doing more of. Have we told them? Do we even know the answer?
Creativity under stress
Who are the people in your organisation working on this answer – working out what needs to replace ‘business as usual’? National crises are often times when necessity provokes tremendous innovation. During WWII, research into radar, nuclear technologies, computing and many other areas intensified because it had to. Far from keeping our heads down as a nation, we planned radical changes to our education system and welfare state.
Is there a team in your business which knows they now have the job of taking creative advantage of the reshaping of our economy? Have you told them? Do they feel safe to think the unthinkable? Or do you need them to make a creative breakthrough in a particular area? If so, do they know?
Communities in adversity
Visitors to the broken states of Africa nearly always come away amazed by the resilient creativity of the
people. When the economy is bust, and unemployment rates are over 80 per cent, each person, family and community has to find their own way to put food in their children’s mouths. Something about the simplicity and urgency of the mission, and the common experience of adversity creates an atmosphere of determined and collaborative endeavour.
Do people in your organisation feel mutually supportive in a common cause? Or are they hoping that the axe will fall on their neighbours? In short, are they doing their new job yet, or are they in denial?
Caring for yourself
Getting to grips with these questions is far from easy when each day the survival of the business depends on the grinding detail of costs, sales, margins and cash management. Finding time to think big can be difficult. Leaders are not exempt from their own fears and anxieties. Before you can meet the needs of others who look to you for confidence and direction, you also need to look after yourself; create some mental, emotional and even political space to act appropriately.
You can help leaders (yourself or colleagues) to deal with these issues through asking a series of targeted leadership questions:
- Have I worked out how to focus staff on what really matters now?
- Have I created a breathing space for creativity and fresh ways of tackling problems?
- Am I maintaining optimism and morale in unsettling conditions?
- Am I remaining true to myself and still playing a genuine role for others?
If you are not getting to grips with these questions and helping your colleagues to think creatively about them as well, then you may be thinking more about your old job instead of the new and exciting job that lies ahead. One way or another, though, you will end up with a new job: either the current one redefined or a less attractive one in a different place of work. So use the ‘wartime spirit’ to gain creative innovation to benefit you and your organisation.
David Barnard is managing consultant at Hay Group.