Fear and Loathing at the Water Cooler

Fear and Loathing at the Water Cooler: 5 Ways to Counter the Recession Related Employee Underground of Anxiety, Aggression, and Shame

If you’ve noticed employees behaving oddly these days, it’s probably not your imagination. Two things are happening with the workforce that are undeniable and that demand different strategies and reactions from business leaders at all levels.

Employees are scared. They’re afraid of their companies failing, of losing their jobs, their homes, and everything they’ve worked long and hard for.

In addition to feeling scared, huge numbers are feeling like failures. With few exceptions, nobody’s hitting their targets (even after multiple re-settings in a downward direction) and they’re constantly reminded of it in meeting after meeting where they’re confronted with embarrassing numbers or given patronizing and hollow pep talks.

How do we know they’re scared? One of two types of behaviors is sweeping through the workplace. Workers are quietly withdrawing to wherever they can hide out – their offices, break rooms, behind computers – seeking safety from any kind of interaction or inquiry. They’re placating, obsequious, almost painfully polite.

On the other hand, the amount of childish squabbling and pointless conflict has escalated to baffling proportions. In many companies, the culture has all the feel of a middle-school lunchroom instead of a dynamic place of business. Pettiness predominates, rumor-mongering is epidemic, and triangulation is the rule of the day.

You don’t need to be a psychotherapist to figure out what’s going on. Our earliest responses to fear are two-fold. First, we go quiet and hope no one notices us. Second, we lash out and try to hurt others. Both are in the service of trying to stay safe.

So what can we do to counter this unacknowledged underground movement? The following strategies have worked for us and many of our colleagues:

  1. Stop using thinking and brain-storming to talk people out of their feelings. Nobody’s going to think their way through this floundering economy and workers are not going to be logically disabused of their fears or their feelings of failure.
  2. Start openly talking about reality, from the top of the organization, down to the bottom. The economy stinks; it isn’t going to get better soon; it will exact a price from everybody; and it compromises many aspects of our lives. This reduces anxiety and allows people to refocus on productive work.
  3. Start talking (especially with your key people) about what it means to them to be a failure. Does it mean they’re worthless and of no value? Does it wipe out everything one does well? Or does it signify a missed opportunity and a lesson (albeit painful) learned? It is crucial, in this discussion, to get on the table the feelings of having disappointed others and of being disappointed in others. This clears a lot of air.
  4. Encourage and reward people acting in counter-intuitive ways. For example, what we’re seeing, in numerous sales forces, is a plethora of low-risk sales behaviors. Salespeople are doing everything short of pleading and begging and end up completely emotionally disengaged. Their fears of rejection have reached their zenith and they’re desperate and frozen. The only way out of this is to challenge the prospect like never before. Tight money doesn’t move without emotion.
  5. Lastly, focus on the skills of your key leaders and ask them (and yourself) the following question: “Of the skills that have made you successful thus far, which fit the current economic climate, and which do not?” Example: An extremely successful sales manager we have worked with has hit the wall in the last six months (along with the salespeople who work for him). His results have been mediocre and getting worse. A portion of this is clearly the economy; but he is well aware that a big chunk is him. He is very smart, very articulate, very “professional” and an astute tactician and problem solver. All of this has produced great results until now. He is also emotionally distant, hard to read, and deflects any attempt to really engage him, with humor.

    What he has had to develop is a new skill base involving self-disclosure, transparency, and vulnerability. There’s nothing inherently wrong with his historical skill base – it’s simply not enough anymore.

Having been through a number of recessions, what we’ve learned is that good times and high profits not only hide many sins, but also disguise a profound and damaging lack of personal and professional growth. It sometimes takes a challenging economy to show us that 80-90 percent of what has made us successful is also the cap on our future growth.

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