During a similar time of duress and economic uncertainty in the mid-1980s, I was vice-president in charge of a very large IT distributed operation. It was impossible for me to get information from my bosses about what was going on. It was awful; I felt totally hamstrung, and my staff was looking to me to provide them with something. This taught me one of the biggest lessons: People fear the unknown more than they fear bad news. You are far better off saying that you may be facing layoffs at some point, but you don’t know when. It gives people an opportunity to plan their lives and prepare for the choices they may face.
The most important strategy at this time is trust. Your staff may not trust the company during a downturn, but if they feel they can trust you and that, at a minimum, you will be fair and forthcoming with information when you know it, they will have more courage in facing ongoing uncertainty.
In a large organization, you have to design some techniques to bring people to the table that don’t normally get proximity to you. I bring in groups of five and spend an hour answering their questions in a safe zone where they should feel comfortable and free to ask anything and share their concerns. If your direct reports are doing that too, you can get a critical mass going and keep the lines of communication open. It’s a release valve that you can’t achieve through internal blogs or the “rah-rah” e-mail that goes out once every couple of weeks. Intimacy is critical.
Also, you need your own “stimulus package.” Having about a 50 per cent cut in our capital projects for next year gives me a chance to open the doors for teams to focus on improving our own internal processes–things that we don’t often have the head room to do because we are so committed to business programs. The staff is excited about that. Keeping them focused and feeling like they are making progress is very important.
Your leadership is really tested in adverse times or crises. It can be a huge development opportunity, but that has a lot to do with your attitude. Sometimes the instinct is to resist employees–how can I divert, dodge or deflect having to communicate with them? Instead, see it as your chance to get down to the floor level and help them build trust in you. At end of the day, the only thing they have is you.