Making a Difference In a Time Like This

I got an interesting email last week, inspired in part by my article on finding purpose in bureaucracies. The email touched on the current economic challenges being felt in organizations, and the very significant difficulties that organizations are being confronted with. In the context of the writer, her organization has had to deal with lay-offs for the first time in decades. Morale is low, work is slow; those who have stayed are not motivated, and those who are motivated are leaving. Leaders and management are struggling, and very possibly out of their depth.

The writer’s question: “How do you keep morale up and employees from leaving at a time like this?”

It’s an excellent question, and one that many organizations are wrestling with right now. And there are no easy answers, quick fixes or silver bullets in terms of how to turn things around, whether in terms of morale or organizational performance.

Speaking personally, I’ve been in very similar circumstances in the past. It’s not easy being a manager, it’s not fun being an executive and it’s miserable being an employee in such an environment. What’s important to recognize is that the current situation is in part driven by external forces. That is what makes situations like this difficult to navigate; we feel powerless, victimized by our circumstances and unable to do anything about it.

At the same time, however, the current reality is not only externally driven. Other internal factors are at work. There is every allowance—and every likelihood—that we contributed to our circumstances as well. We might have been over-confident, taken a few too many risks or failed to recognize or anticipate the signals that suggested markets were changing and economic factors were shifting.

I point this out not to assign blame, but to describe what often influences mindsets in these circumstances. A challenging external market combined with an internal mindset that in part assigns blame to our actions (or failures to act) results in a whole lot of wallowing in self pity, misery and recriminations. That’s not anyone’s recipe for a fun time at the amusement park, so the impacts on morale are going to be fairly predictable.

At the same time, I know what things are like when organizations get to the other side. The sun comes up on a shiny new economy, the organization lands a key account or significant project, and all of a sudden it’s all sunshine-and-roses again. With an interestingly new set of recriminations, that often sounds a lot like, “I wish we took the time to do this when things were slow.” Things always look different in hindsight; the only difficulty is that you can’t go back and change the past. You can only go forward from here.

What we are describing here are psychological states played out on an organizational scale. A lot of the factors at play are similar to what was observed in a slightly different context in the research I conducted in my last book, Exercising Agency. Of particular relevance are the factors in the research that influenced agency. Those decision makers that exhibited the greatest degree of agency (and had the most significant influence on influencing effective decision making environments) in part felt that they were in control of their own destiny. Those individuals that lacked agency in large part felt that circumstances were out of their control; while they were in ineffective environments, they felt powerless to influence or create change that would make a difference.

In other words, a lot of the ability to influence change depends upon the degree to which we believe that we can do so, and the opportunity that we have to make change happen. That’s not to say that if we all just wish hard enough then the economy will magically transform itself. But—even in the face of factors outside of our control—there are things that we are able to influence. There are actions we can take and changes that we can make that can lead to different outcomes.

What we first have to do is take realistic stock of the current situation. If there is genuinely a feeling that the organization isn’t going to survive, then leaving may be a very rational choice. To the extent that the organization is expected to outlast the current economic downturn, however, there are some strategic benefits to staying and making the best of things. The question is where to focus our attentions. This needs to be assessed with strategic intent. The focus is on what will make a difference, and what falls within our scope and ability to make happen.

The opportunities can be plentiful here. We might look at doubling down on the key customer that we still do have, and working with them to identify how they can survive and succeed in the current environment. We may choose to invest in improving our processes, our equipment or our systems, so that when things do turn around we are best positioned to most efficiently take advantage of them. We may take the time to invest in revamping our products and services—or how we deliver them—to make them most attractive in the future, or to figure out how to deliver them more affordably for our customers today. We may invest the time to build deeper relationships in our marketplace, to really understand what drives our customers, to know how we can best help them solve problems, and to be able to recognize the early signs that things are turning around.

Which of these should we focus on? And how do I build and maintain morale and keep employees from leaving? That is going to depend on environment, context and circumstances.

If I am a leader or senior manager in the organization, then there are a number of fronts I need to be acting on. First off, I need to be communicating—frequently, openly and honestly—about where we are, the challenges we are facing and what we are doing about it. I need to provide focus and direction in identifying problems, prioritizing choices and providing what resources I can to help make a difference. I need to be actively engaging with staff throughout the organization, providing encouragement for what is possible, recognition of efforts being made and celebration of accomplishments that are realized. Hiding in my office or hunkering down in the board room are not helpful strategies here.

If I am a mid-level manager or supervisor, then I am facing a very different challenge. I may see the possibilities and opportunities that can make a difference, but I also may need to secure support for them to meaningfully move ahead. I need to be an advocate and advisor to senior management and a champion and cheerleader to my team. In particular, I need to be helping my team to understand what they can do to make a difference, and—to the greatest degree that I can—I need to provide them with the space and resources they need to do the work. This may be less than is optimal, but even what we do on a best-efforts basis can have a huge impact on morale. Helping my team to engage in meaningful work that has the opportunity to visibly make a difference can be a huge source of motivation for individual team members. It also helps them to advance their careers and increase their attractiveness as employees, whether they stay or ultimately move on to new opportunities.

If I’m a front-line employee, then I arguably face the greatest challenge. I’m taking responsibility for my own morale and motivation, and choosing to make the best of the situation I am in. I am exercising agency, identifying what is possible to do and choosing to do the work to make that happen. In all honesty, it can be difficult to sustain energy and enthusiasm if we feel isolated, and the greatest risk is that our ideas and innovations fail to get recognized. At the same time, our efforts may serve as inspiration to those around us, and we may be able to recruit others to join and collaborate with us, even on an informal basis. Finding opportunities to contribute and make a difference in our individual work can ultimately pay huge dividends. As things pick up, those who stayed for the long haul and made a difference in doing so will often be recognized, and rewarded with opportunities that wouldn’t have been likely or possible if performance had remained business-as-usual.

In all instances, what we are trying to do is make better choices in our current reality. We are saying to ourselves, “If we accept that we are where we are today, and we intend and believe that we will come out of the other side, then what is the problem that—if solved—will leave us best positioned to move forward? Where can we invest our energy and intention to make the biggest difference?”

This is in part about taking an optimistic stance in the face of adversity. Doing so is not about pie-in-the-sky thinking and rose-coloured glasses, however. It’s because optimism and positive effort is ultimately what makes the greatest difference. If we believe we can be successful, we will be; when we face roadblocks, we keep trying to move forward, when others have given up, packed up their toys and gone home. As Henry Ford is widely claimed to have said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

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