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Communicate to help employees anxious about economy

Coach's Corner--November 3, 2008

The Client
Name: Teresa
Age: 46
Title: Executive Director
Time at organization: Two years
Industry: Non-profitt
Issue: Managing uncertainty from the economic downturn
Q. My employees are concerned about the effects of the current economic downturn on our business and their futures. I’ve assured them that they’ll have jobs through 2008, but the longer-term future is more uncertain. What can I do to help them in this crisis?

A. Honest communication is paramount, along with providing opportunities to help people prepare.

The inner game
What are you sure of? What’s uncertain? Take an honest look at the situation so that you have the best possible information to share.

Examine your feelings. Look at your reactions to the downturn as the head of your organization, an employee, a provider for your family, and a person who gains a sense of meaning from your work. If unacknowledged, any anxiety you’re feeling will interfere with your ability to support your team.

Look at your leadership skills. If you need additional skills for helping people through stressful times, acquire them now. Listening skills are particularly important to help employees manage negative emotions. If needed, find someone who can help you develop these skills — it’ll serve you well in the long run.

Allocate resources to help. Assess internal expertise and budgets for external services so you can make realistic decisions about what to offer. Also identify outside resources employees can use on their own.

The outer game
Make time for your employees and have open conversations about the challenges your organization faces. If you believe that some information shouldn’t be shared, challenge yourself about the reasons to keep it to yourself. The cost in trust may outweigh the risks of sharing. Or, you might find that while you can’t share some things, you will be better able to explain why. A recent workshop participant noted that the best thing management can do is be honest — it’s much less frightening than the possibilities employees imagine in the absence of information.

Acknowledge their fears. Provide a safe environment to talk about their concerns, possibly using an outside facilitator to guide these conversations. Encourage employees to think about how they handle change and ways they could do it better.

Provide development resources. Help employees create plans for a couple of different scenarios. Plan A may be to develop within the context of your organization if the situation stabilizes. Plan B should focus on how they would move forward if they have to move on. This may include résumé development, goal setting, and networking. Career development activities like these may be part of your current environment; if so, ramp them up even more. If not, start now. These are valuable activities, even in good times. Growth-oriented employees who are prepared for other possibilities, yet choose to stay with you, are the ones you want to keep.

Ask for employees’ ideas. Their thoughts on belt-tightening and improving how your organization is run would be valuable, and they’ll gain a stronger sense of control over their fate.

The last word
The current economic climate is hard on everyone. However, communicating openly and supporting people in practical ways will help weather the short-term storm while setting you and your team up for long-term success.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted November 2, 2008
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