Despite an opening rant on scandalous or shadowy corporate operations, the Stress Doc cautions not to forget the survivors of the streamlinings and mergers. Part I of this two-part series focuses on five micro and macro reorganizational strategies.
Five Macro and Micro Strategies for Post-Enron Reorganization
A Stress Doc Survival Guide: Part I
As the parade of corporate scandals increasingly lengthens, and the numbers on the sidelines waving bye to their stock options, 401Ks, savings and livelihoods increases, let's try a positive spin. Perhaps these CEOs were motivated less by criminal greed and more for the common good. It's well known that Americans have a decided problem with obesity. Despite all the downsizing and consolidating, rightsizing and frightsizing of the past and present, maybe the troops were still not sufficiently "lean-and-mean." Well Enron and Arthur, World.com and Martha…thank you. With our wallets shrunk, if not our waistlines, I believe many of us now are finally "lean-and-MEAN."
And whatever the economic context for this corporate crisis -- whether dimensions global or criminal, irrational exuberance of investors or plain mismanagement of decision-makers -- simply ranting about corporate execs as a solution only goes so far. (Though let's not minimize the pleasure and, at least, short-term stress relief from skewering criminally greedy, arrogant and hyperinflated egos.) Whether involved in a merger or reduction in force we still have employees and the organization as a whole in serious need of assistance during this turbulent transition. So strategies and steps for reorganizational survival are critical if productivity, coordination and morale are to eventually rebound. And one of the most important survival structures for repairing the doubt and disconnect between individual and organization, between employees and management is the work team.
Part I of this series will focus on five systemic and individual reorganizational survival elements – from the realities of downsizing to the strategic use of Employee Assistance Programs and OD Consultants. While more oversight in the corporate boardroom is needed, for example, some advocate making sure the CEO is not the Chairman of the Board, and that the latter have genuine scrutiny over the former, Part II focuses more on the relationship between top management, supervisors and employees. The article lists five strategies that illuminate how the team can become the nucleus for grieving and healing and the rebuilding of trust by: a) recognizing the loss of key personnel and integrating new team players, practices, emotional processing, etc., b) developing a more inclusive team decision-making process, c) coordinating new or modified working relationships in teams and departments and d) and interconnecting departments and divisions throughout the organization so all have a better sense of and commitment to the newly evolving big picture.
System-Element Survival Strategies
Let's begin with five macro-micro problem setting and strategies; some begin in anticipation (or in denial) of an impending restructuring:
1. Recognizing Reorganizational Uncertainty. With an organizational climate of mistrust, it may be difficult for all the worker munchkins and low- and mid-level managers at OZ Corp. to know what degree of control the highest execs, like the Wizard, actually have and what's just reorganizational smoke and mirrors. Based on consulting experience, I'm aware of so many external factors, for example, Congress for federal agencies, IT meltdowns and the loss of the tax revenue base for state governments, or globalization issues for corporations, etc., that cloud the reorganizational picture of who's the real captain of the company ship when navigating such turbulent waters.
In this amorphous, uncertain and doubting environment, some employees don't want to focus on precarious possibilities; they shut down critical thinking or, even, push themselves to exhaustion. They work harder and harder to prove their "essential" status. Others, feeling like "pawns" try to battle their anxiety and sense of helplessness while establishing some control by cranking up the old mill. Not surprisingly, in this shadowy climate, with the fear of losing jobs or work hours, the rumor mill often goes into overtime.
Those at the top often make two mistakes, one an error of omission, the other of commission. First, management often does not institute workshops on loss and change that would formally allow employees and supervisors to vent about and better grapple with current conditions. The second error, though not always pre-meditated, is passing along information not grounded in first-hand observation or fact. While this sharing is meant to be reassuring (not simply for defusing anger toward management; let's not be cynical) or at least to help other's see the glass as half empty and half full, such information only fuels rumor-mongering. This is akin to a visually ambiguous projection test triggering multiple interpretations by viewers. Also, some staff may think that by sharing such fanciful information, management takes employees for fools.
What is clear is that these mistakes and missed opportunities can ravage long-term trust and loyalty. When it comes to transmission, better for key decision-makers and information gatekeepers to share less but more substantive data. This directive holds even if the only honest and affirmative statement is, "At this time, I don't know what's going on or what this really means." Truth in reorganizing should not be as dubious as truth in advertising!
2. Being Down and (Breaking) Out. In the early '90s restructuring rumors were flying at the US Postal Service, especially at headquarters and nearby facilities in the Metro-DC area. Still the prevailing attitude was: "We are always going through changes (in operation. No big deal." Alas, what was not foreseen was that Carvin Marvin Runyon was brought in wielding a decidedly "cutting edge" Postmaster General axe. Nationwide, within a year, troop size was reduced by 50,000.
Two categories of employees seemed to survive best the tumultuous transition:
a) the kick-started entrepreneur. I recall one employee declaring he could no longer put all his financial and career security eggs in the postal basket. He had been contemplating starting his own seafood business for years, while doing nothing tangible. Now he was definitely pissed and, perhaps, soon to be RIFfed Off (RIF = Reduction In Force). While not planning to leave the USPS presently, the downsizing was a "kick in the butt" to disprove that his entrepreneurial vision was not just a hallucination.
b) the back to schooler. Another group of folks who saw the opportunity in problems rather than a problem of reduced opportunity were those who decided to go outside for schooling or for additional in-house training. These steps would make them more marketable, provide more flexibility for landing on their feet when the downsizing dust settled…whether inside or out of the Postal Service. (As an aside, while writing the first draft of this article at Teaism, my tea house sanctuary, a fellow at the next table mentioned that in a company downsizing, one person wrangled a leave of absence to work on a novel. In general, I wouldn't count on this option.)
3. Setting Boundaries. For the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), already beset by multiple downsizings in the last few years, post-9/11 has meant you "do even more with less." During a recent Practice Safe Stress Program with the DIA, I was emphasizing the importance of "N & N" - the ability to say "NO" and to "Negotiate" - in light of how "burnout is less a sign of failure and more that we give ourselves away." A mature woman interrupts, challenging my philosophy: "My boss doesn't want to discuss priorities and time factors; he just wants it when he wants it!" The woman briefly listed various ways she's tried to reason with or please her supervisor…without success.
Intently outlining the burnout stages, I was taken aback by her mid-stage declaration. Suddenly, out of the murmuring void, a voice of clarity. A woman, perhaps in her 50s, with years at the agency, said, "I used to have this problem, trying to please my boss; staying till seven or eight almost every night. Eventually, I started getting sick." This wakeup call led to: a) pushing aside her reservations about standing up to authority and b) a serious "N & N" with her supervisor. The result: more control of her work schedule, less stress and improved health, not to mention greater confidence and self-esteem. I affirmed the survival wisdom. The extra-ordinary (occasionally staying till eight or coming in on a weekend, unless you choose to do so more frequently) must not become the ordinary (or routinely expected).
4. Seeking Outside Help. If that problematic boss won't listen to reason, think outside the one-on-one or department box:
a) EAP as Employee Ally. Talk to an Employee Assistance Program counselor or seek private counseling or coaching. The EAP option has several advantages: 1) with your permission, an EAP counselor can speak to your supervisor. This counselor can also facilitate conflict mediation between the antagonistic parties, 2) if discovering that you are not the only disaffected team member, the counselor can suggest a team meeting with the supervisor, with or without an EAP presence. (Several employees from a team or department using EAP services will eventually get management's attention, especially when going on company time.) If the level of trust and degree of openness between employees and a supervisor is compromised, outside facilitation is needed.
b) Call on OD Consultant. Sometimes Human Resources or, even, the EAP (often for confidentiality reasons) will recommend an outside consultant/facilitator. Another consideration is having an "objective" third party with no employment ties to the organization, that is, not simply a (perceived) management mouthpiece. Separate identity and sense of integrity are vital in this intervention role. (The Stress Doc is tested, rested and ready to roll. His motto: "Have Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire!")
c) EAP/Consultant as Supervisor Ally. Finally, supervisors need to use the EAP not simply as a referral option for troubled or troublesome individuals. The best supervisors are those who seek out the EAP Counselor (or an EAP- or HR-referred consultant) for approaches in handling a difficult employee or complex team issue. The worst response by a supervisor is denying or downplaying the adverse effects of a slacker on his or her colleagues. Simply encouraging or expecting others to ignore a "stress carrier" heightens team members' anger and anxiety. ("Will this carrier explode or implode? Will I be hurt by the fallout?" Will a borderline employee have the chance to pull a knife on a new supervisor partly because the supervisor's boss downplayed the violence potential of the employee?) Now both dysfunctional employee and dysfunctional supervisor become a tumor, inevitably eroding morale and productivity of the unit.
5. Following the Way of the Acronyms. Consider these two acronyms to bolster survival capacity during these trying transitional times:
a) Balancing The Triple "A". To affirm an employee's sense of professionalism and sense of responsibility, blend "The Triple 'A': Authority, Autonomy and Accountability." Management must recognize and support an employee's utilization of skills and knowledge, and the desire to have input in relevant decision-making ("Authority"). Workers also want some control of their turf, time frames, tools and operating procedures ("Autonomy"). At the same time, employees must accept the objective and timely review of their work performance. Alas, with all the "Accountability" scandals at the top, I wonder if employees, in noticeable numbers, will start challenging a manager's right to one-dimensionally grade their work quality and quantity.
b) Investing in Organizational IRAs. When people are chronically doing more with less, don't assume they will be (or should be) grateful just having a job in a tight economy. A management team that's concerned about motivation and loyalty or, at least, about the longevity of workplace survivors, makes sure people can earn those IRAs: Incentives, Recognition & Rewards and Advancement Opportunities, including opportunity for needed and desired training.
Part I has identified five macro-micro, organizational-individual strategies and structures for broadly managing the shock and subsequent fallout of a disruptive reorganization. These are: 1) Accepting Reorganizational Uncertainty, 2) Being Down and (Breaking) Out, 3) Setting Boundaries, 4) Seeking Outside Help and 5) Following the Way of the Acronyms. Part II will enumerate five specific team interventions for rebuilding and bonding within the team or departments and for subsystems across the organization as a whole. Hopefully, Parts I and II will heal wounds and regenerate individual, team and organizational energy and spirit while enabling all to…Practice Safe Stress!
Building on the broad reorganizational strategies as outlined in Part I, the final segment examines five strategies for the work team as nucleus for grappling positively with disruptive change, a setting for grieving and healing and for the rebuilding of trust and productivity.
Five Team Building Strategies for Post-Enron Reorganization
A Stress Doc Survival Guide: Part II
Part I of this series (SD News: JUL02) focused on five systemic structural and individual intervention elements for surviving an uncertain reorganization or downsizing. Part II focuses on the relationship between top management, supervisors and employees as well as departments or branches. The article lists five strategies that illuminate how the team can become the nucleus for grieving and healing and the rebuilding of trust by: a) recognizing the loss of key personnel and integrating new team players, practices, emotional processing, etc., b) developing a more inclusive team decision-making process, c) coordinating new or modified working relationships in teams and departments and d) and interconnecting departments and divisions throughout the organization so all have a better sense of and commitment to the newly evolving big picture.
1. Team Meeting Paradigm Shift. Transforming a typical supervisor-driven team meeting into a gradual team building process doesn't require the group going on some touchy-feely retreat or participating in some formulaic or chaotic (that is, leaderless) TQM training program. With a little advanced coaching and group training along with some operational shifts, a team can become a catalyst for improved coordination, morale and productivity. Consider these hands on strategies:
a) Staff Facilitation -- have staff members replace the supervisor as meeting facilitator every 4-8 weeks (assuming the team meets once or twice/week).
b) Two Hats Phenomenon - another shift involving both style and substance is having the supervisor or department head wear two hats: as much as possible, in the meeting this individual is team player first and management representative second. Surely, letting up on the authority reins may be a challenge for some managers. However, this shift can be initially uncomfortable for other team members as well. Employees who are used to deferring to authority or who don't want to risk being open with ideas and beliefs will have a steeper learning curve. Also, across the organizational hierarchy, there are individuals reluctant to assume responsibility for making decisions and being held responsible for outcomes. Such a perceptual and procedural shift requires trust and, like the phenomenon of trust, will evolve or erode over time.
c) Try a Controlled and Safe Experiment -- when contemplating innovation, establishing a time-limited pilot project often allows various parties, especially the authority figures, i.e., supervisors, managers, division directors, etc., a sense of some control with an uncertain change process.
Another useful safety feature is having a team-building consultant be a facilitator/role model for the first two or three "participatory" meetings. I recall helping an IT team at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with this process. Initially, the supervisor and team members were overly focused on my direction (and, perhaps, my approval). The analogy used was trying to teach them to ride a two-wheeler. At first, they didn't want me to let go of the bike seat. In fact, I wound up playfully hiding under the conference table so that the participants could not make eye contact with me, only surfacing if I thought they were wildly off course. Gradually, and more steadily, the group process began to cruise, this time hardly noticing my presence when I resurfaced.
2. Build In a Wavelength Segment. In a "lean-and-MEAN" climate, not surprisingly, most meetings -- from team and department to branch and division -- are short fused if not "T & T" -- "Time and Task"-driven. So while the above recommendations open up the process, the content is often still exclusively focused on goals and objectives, timelines and deadlines and outcomes and return on investment issues. Which makes sense; there's a business or organization to run. My recommendation calls for carving out ten or fifteen minutes at the end of the meeting - the "Wavelength Segment." A group member comfortable with group process initially facilitates the meeting. Then, as noted above, as experience and trust builds the role of facilitator can be rotated.
Three purposes of the "Wavelength" are:
a) Relationship Check - this closing segment focuses on how members are relating with each other; it considers any barriers to communication and cooperation bypassed in the "T n T" section of the meeting. Group members are encouraged to vent appropriately frustrations related both to team operations and between the team/department and the larger organizational environment, e.g., other departments, executive boards, etc. Whenever possible, the manager in tandem with team reps should push up the organizational ladder issues generated.
b) Peer Recognition - in addition, "the wavelength" is also a time and place for recognizing individual and group efforts that have heightened morale and/or productivity.
c) Restore Trust - finally, perhaps most important, the wavelength is designed to restore trust, especially between a supervisor or manager and team members. Based on my broad organizational experience there is often a fear of speaking up (the chain of command). This fear is fueled by the prospect of being judged negatively, being retaliated against in a performance evaluation or blocked from fulfilling one's career path. Such restricted, if not repressive, environment does as much to stifle morale and induce burnout while undermining initiative and innovation as any other toxic elements or hazardous workplace conditions.
3. Plan Informal Gatherings. In a "do more with less" environment, some organizations practically dispense with meetings; others have employees feeling "meetinged to death." Either extreme is self-defeating in terms of optimal team coordination and individual productivity. Consider these alternatives:
a) Morning Huddle - briefly get as many team members together in the morning or just before the shift starts. Identify any looming surprises or crises and areas of unfinished business, or whether a team member may need extra support or backup coverage. This is a 5-10 minute "heads up," "all on the same page" gathering. And if you add some humor -- "joke of the morning" -- it can get the team off to a lively and cohesive start.
b) Communal Lunch - each Friday, one federal government branch would have lunch together. Especially if employee hours are staggered, having more than one opportunity to gather informally makes sense. For other units, Friday afternoon pizza parties serve a similar function - informal "food for thought" and laughs.
c) Chief's Cookout - twice a year the above head of the aforementioned branch, invited team members to her house for a half-day "visionary" cookout. (The food was real.) This mini-retreat setting helped the group maintain the currency of their branch vision while creatively massaging vital "big picture" goals and action plans.
4. Regular Systemic Parts-Whole Integration. At some regular interval the teams and/or departments of the division, center or entire organization need to congregate. The purposes include:
a) Installing Windows In the Silos - management sharing "big picture" information, to help employees and units see their give-and-take connection or disconnection with the whole, including the larger environment, e.g., a National Institutes of Health (NIH) center having problems getting backing for grants approval at the Institute Director level.
b) Interdepartmental Clarification and Collaboration - allow teams and departments to clarify roles and responsibilities in areas of overlap, identify potential joint venture areas, and announce hot projects that may have larger appeal or impact thereby motivating interdepartmental collaboration. And, of course, this venue will broadcast inter-team coordination successes.
c) Matrix Teaming - from parts to whole, there must not simply be top-down information flow unless in a state of urgency. (Remember, the urgent must get done now, the important is negotiated and prioritized.) If time constraints or meeting size prove unwieldy, then a matrix team comprised of a small sample of department managers, supervisors and employees across varying units should convene for task and process problem solving as outlined in the above "Wavelength Segment."
5. Autonomy and Collaboration Among the Chiefs. Competing perspectives, if not conflict, among top management or between the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors is to be expected. Actually, it's probably needed to avoid the greed and groupthink that has been fostering "irrationally exuberant," deceptive and criminal actions.
Too often, however, Executives deny or cover-up their own and/or colleagues' performance inadequacies; or long-standing personality conflicts between some of "The Big Five" (as I dubbed a federal agency Center Director, her Deputy and the three Branch Managers) lead to communicational and problem solving inertia. Now the status quo is triumphant. No one risks the conflict necessary to change and rejuvenate a tired and outmoded operating system or leadership.
Of course, when the Board of Directors is basically a rubber stamp for the CEO and the CEO is somewhat out of touch with employee discontent, then anger will inevitably get acted out. In one non-profit organization, several staff members frustrated with the Executive Director asked the head of the Personnel Committee to have the Board vote to remove the Executive Director. (A meeting between the Personnel head, staff members and Executive was bypassed.) A split within the Board over the Director's fate led to tension and recriminations within the Board, between the Board and Executive Committee, between Board and staff and between Executive Director and the disaffected staff members. Not surprisingly, both the board members siding with the Director and the loyal staff members did not look favorably upon the staff and Personnel head that did an end run on the Executive Director. It took six months of intense Organizational Development intervention to help all segments work through the hurt, anger and mistrust and to rejuvenate morale and productivity levels.
In conclusion, team coordination is critical at all levels/subsystems in the organization -- from the frontline work group to the top Executive Management Committee. Try instituting these five team building strategies: 1) Team Meeting Paradigm Shift, 2) Build In a Wavelength Segment, 3) Plan Informal Gatherings, 4) Regular Systemic Parts-Whole Integration and 5) Autonomy and Collaboration Among the Chiefs. Your company or agency will identify barriers to trust and cooperation while transforming tension and conflict into productive and creative collaboration. And, of course, these are strategies to help us all…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international speaker and syndicated writer, is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ The Doc runs his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource in a National Public Radio feature on "Bad Bosses. Email for his monthly newsletter recently showcased on List-a-Day.com. For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662.