Dealing with negative energy

Nov 24 2009 by Jean-Francois Manzoni Print This Article

Over the last 12 months, just about every organization in the world has had to go back to basics and "re-trench" with the hope of emerging from the recession a stronger company.

For today that means inflicting a certain amount of pain on the organization and its people. Even if you are not laying people off, you might be moving people around, asking them to work harder or differently and with fewer resources. In other words, you are taking people out of their comfort zones.

It's a difficult balancing act. You need to make changes and prepare for the future, but at the same time you can't afford to lose the goodwill of your staff.

Negative energy

One of the biggest enemies you face during these times is negative energy. This can show itself in any of four ways:

1. The first is fear, anxiety or even paralysis among staff who feel stressed and unsure of what they are meant to be doing.

2. Helplessness. People who know their role but feel helpless without the resources they are used to.

3. Internal fighting. Resources are cut and people blame each other for jobs not being done properly.

4. Disenfranchised prisoners. People who are unhappy in their work but can't leave the company as the economic climate limits their alternatives.

As a leader or manager you have less room for manoeuvre at times like these, but it's important to keep "tomorrow" in mind and look at how you can minimize this negative energy in the meantime.

For me, there are five elements to focus on:

1. Increase communication

As the leader of your organization, people are looking to you for direction. You may think you have communicated your strategy and the reasons for change, but you need to repeat it again and again.

"Why this? Why now? What is the case for change?" These are the messages you need to highlight. You may say the same thing 10 times a day, but it may be to 10 different audiences. While the sense of repetition is considerable for you, it is not for your employees.

Employees also need to understand what the "prize" is. What are they going to get for their pain? After all, they have to work harder with fewer resources.

Explain that by becoming more efficient in costs and processes, you will be able to be more aggressive in the marketplace and gain assets and clients from competitors. In other words, you'll be better placed to secure a long-term future for the company and the staff.

2. Acknowledge efforts and successes

In difficult times, the tendency is to focus on the things that need to be done better. But it's important to positively reinforce the things that are already being done well.

A simple thank you and recognition of effort goes a long way, particularly when people are working under tougher conditions and doing a good job with fewer resources.

3. Be mindful of your own impatience – fair process is more important than ever

You no doubt feel under pressure to turn things around for the company, but you need to be mindful of your own impatience and take care not to convey this to your staff.

But how are you supposed to get people to support new initiatives that are not favorable for them? This comes back to communication and repeating the message of 'Why this? Why now? Why the need for change?'

Once people understand why change is needed, they will also want to know how new initiatives are going to work, what benefits they will bring and when. More importantly, they will need to feel that they are being heard and any "pain" is properly shared.

People are capable of supporting difficult measures but you must take the time to ensure the process is perceived to be fair and not unnecessarily brutal.

4. The management team must be at its best

In tough times, employees are looking for guidance and reassurance so it is vital that your management team is at its best and puts on a show of unity. Not only do you need to agree on the points below, but you need to be seen to agree.

So be clear about:

  • how you define the business and its boundaries
  • the vision/aspiration you are striving toward
  • the strategy you are pursuing, and
  • the must-win battles / priorities for the coming months.

These elements must make sense individually and collectively, so there is no room for approximations or a lack of focus.

The same goes for management meetings. Don't waste time in badly planned meetings. Plan an agenda, identify decisions and take them. Communication and trust is also crucial. Be forthright with one another and cut to the chase in a way that is productive and supportive.

5. Relentlessly drive out complexity

Complexity is always an important enemy for management, but fighting it becomes even more important during times that require employees to produce extra effort. Producing such effort to help the company survive or to position it effectively for the next phase is one thing. Producing such effort to make up for inadequate processes, unclear directions or confusion of the management team is quite another.

Increasing the bandwidth of the organization starts with ensuring the management team's alignment and clarity. It also requires excellent process management. As Toyota puts it, "We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes. We observe that our competitors often get average (or worse) results from brilliant people managing broken processes.[1]

Beyond process management, successful organizations are relentless in their elimination of non-value-adding activities (e.g., Nestlé's war on waste). They are also very forcefully screening out potentially value-adding ideas to make sure they only retain those that offer a high return on time and energy invested.

Tesco, for example, is relentlessly rejecting activities or ideas that don't lead to "Better, Simpler, Cheaper" – a better shopping experience for customers, more simplicity for staff and/or less costs for Tesco.

The road to recovery will not necessarily be quick and smooth. But I hope these five ideas will help you on your way and will enable you to reach your desired destination sooner than expected.

About The Author

Jean-Francois Manzoni
Jean-Francois Manzoni

Jean-Francois Manzoni is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Development at Swiss business school, IMD. His research, teaching and consulting activities are focused on the management of change at the individual and organizational levels.