“Our people are our most important resource!” That statement or some variant of it can be found in nearly every corporate mission or values statement. Sometimes employees file past posters emblazoned with the statement on their way to all-employee meetings where headcount reductions are announced.
Please, enough already. If senior managers truly valued their employees, then Scott Adams would still be working for the phone company instead of drawing Dilbert, and The Office would have been canceled after the first episode. And hundreds of thousands of people recently laid off in the automotive, financial services, pharmaceutical, and real estate industries would be gainfully employed.
Headcount reductions are among the first-trigger moves that companies employ when the economy softens, which is why repeating that hollow mantra that employees matter most during an economic downturn is pure poppycock. Repeating it to employees, as many senior managers do, is as disingenuous as it is de-motivating to the people who remain with the company. (For how long is anyone’s guess).
So instead of saying people matter during a downturn, prove it. Here are three ways:
Stop pretending. Economic downturns produce anxiety in the workforce. Daily newscasts or hourly web updates chart the downward effect on markets, industries and companies. Pretending that bad news will stay away is a losing strategy, yet many corporate managers do try to avoid the subject. Be straight with people; explain what the downturn means and the implications on your business. And if you don’t know something, admit it, but try and find out. Sooner than later.
Encourage personal decision-making. Give employees more say in how they do their jobs. Managers determine the “what do to”; but when employees have a say in how they do the job, they feel more engaged. Loss of control over one’s fate is vexing in a downturn, but if employees feel they have some say over how they do their work, they feel more in control.
Invest in employees. Training and development are typically cut during down economies. That’s too bad because often the acquisition of new skills and the development of untapped talents are the factors that will help the company survive the downturn. Sometimes downturns bring lulls in the work flow. Use such time wisely by grooming your talent base.
When times are tough, employees want to know their bosses are down on the floor with them, not perched high in an office tower. In a study by the Center for Creative Leadership (October 2007), nearly 100% of managers surveyed said that collaboration was essential. Yet less than half of respondents said collaboration occurred.
That’s too bad because collaboration might produce one thing that senior leaders really need right now — commitment. When employees know the facts, and believe that senior leaders are being straight with them, they may pay more attention to their jobs. They may be more willing to commit to their work instead of worrying (too much) about when the ax will fall on them.
First posted on HBR.org 8/22/2008