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Set behavior expectations, but listen to layoff concerns

Coach's Corner--April 6, 2009

The Client
Name: Andrew
Age: 43
Title: Senior director, Data warehousing
Industry: Healthcare
Issue: Anger and fear at work
Q. I usually agree with your “stay positive and focus on what you control” approach, but that’s increasingly challenging. My employer is contemplating layoffs to close a budget gap that is smaller than some of the “bonuses” being paid to individuals at failing Wall Street companies. I’m seeing a lot more anger among my direct reports. Anger added to fear is a toxic mix, one I’m feeling myself. Help!

A. Last week’s column focused on dealing with your personal feelings; this week’s addresses ways to help your team.

The inner game
Settle yourself down. Do a quick scan of your feelings. If you’re angry or anxious, revisit last week’s steps to get grounded. Also draw on other resources to help you, if needed.

Look around. Notice how each person in your group expresses the stress of the situation. Expect to see a lot of differences. Some may be very vocal about their feelings, while others may become withdrawn. It’s easy to confuse quiet with acceptance, so make a point of finding out how people are doing.

Manage your reactions. How do you react when someone handles stress differently than you? A “tough it out” person may be impatient with someone who needs to talk about their feelings, while a more expressive person may be frustrated with the strong, silent type. All styles need to be respected so that you don’t cause someone to shut down.

Know your expectations. While you can’t tell people what to feel, it is your responsibility to set expectations for behavior in the workplace. Define how you expect people to talk and behave, and consider how you’ll deal with people who aren’t meeting your expectations. For example, think about how you’d handle negativity, rumor-mongering, or underperformance.

The outer game
Be a role model. Besides being their leader, you’re in the same boat. Share some of your feelings and strategies for handling the stress. Showing your human side gives them permission to deal with their feelings, gives you extra support, and demonstrates your commitment to a compassionate environment.

Set ground rules. Get together with your team and discuss your expectations. Find a balance between laying down the law and seeking input. You have an obligation to your organization to keep your team operating well; you also have a responsibility to your team to help them thrive.

Provide opportunities. People will need support to maintain a positive and productive workplace despite the challenging environment. Use staff meetings to discuss the business climate and share information so that they don’t have to rely on the rumor mill. Also provide constructive outlets for their feelings; for example, allowing time for volunteer efforts or other empowering activities.

Expect accountability. It doesn’t take much to push a stressed environment into a toxic one, so stay on top of it. If people aren’t stepping up and aren’t willing to be helped, you’ll need to intervene for the sake of the rest of the team and the organization.

The last word
With strong leadership, you can achieve an environment where feelings are respected and performance is maintained. These skills will also help you when new challenges arise.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted April 5, 2009
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