First-class coach

Q: Everyone I manage seems depressed.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

We've had redundancies and cuts, and fear more are on the way. But we need to be more motivated and productive if we are going to survive the downturn. What can I do to turn around the situation? A: This is a situation where both the rational and emotional sides of our mental wiring are clearly on display and working at cross purposes. The rational side tells us that if we want to successfully avoid the fate of our ex-colleagues we need to get galvanised and focus our energies on tackling the challenges that confront us.

But our emotions - often unacknowledged - may be pulling us in the opposite direction. Sadness, anger and even shame over the loss of co-workers, some of whom may have been friends, as well as fear that we may be next can override our logical understanding of how to survive in the changed environment.

Failure to recognise these emotions, and to provide some outlet for them, further exacerbates the situation. Following swift exits, further discussion of the situation becomes taboo, deepening the rift between managers and those they manage. Survivors are given no opportunity to mourn the departures and the ensuing disturbance of familiar working patterns and relationships. All types of change can be unsettling and forced change is usually the most disruptive of all.

Yet there are ways through this situation. My suggestions are twofold, involving the team as a whole and its individual members. The group dynamic has been disturbed and a sense of identity and shared purpose needs to be re-established. You can do this by arranging a team event, preferably offsite. Start by outlining the current situation and future prospects, sharing information that may not have been commonly available, so the team can feel privy to the business realities. Then invite people to work in pairs, preferably with someone they know least well, to identify actions and attitudes that will help create progress. Group these under three headings - 'Stop', 'Start' and 'Continue' - and get everyone to write each idea on a sticky notelet.

Begin the debrief with the 'Continue' heading, encouraging people to consider the previous ways of working that should be maintained in the new scenario. This acknowledges positive aspects of the past and honours the contribution made by ex-colleagues. The 'Stop' heading is usually the hardest to do but almost always represents the behavioural change that will make the biggest difference to future success. Very often, stopping moaning will be suggested from several quarters.

The number of 'Start' suggestions will depend on the morale of the team. If they are still depressed, there may not be many suggestions for new initiatives, strategies and tactics, but the fact that management has consulted them and listened to their ideas should encourage more enthusiasm.

Having collected all these ideas, the team vote on the four or five they feel are most important and then develop concrete plans for implementing them - ideally, with individuals volunteering to take responsibility for overseeing progress. The result of this session should be that the group regain (or even create) the sense that the power to make positive change lies in their own hands. Taking action is also a great stress buster.

But you will also need to work with people individually to re-establish trust and the sense that they are personally valued. Redundancies can make people feel as though they are just hired hands, ultimately expendable. This can destroy their willingness to go the extra mile.

To reconnect, I recommend you have a development conversation with each team member, quite separate from any discussions on pay. The aim is to identify how the new circumstances can be an opportunity for growth. Together, identify the work individuals do best and the areas into which they would like to expand. While you may not be able to satisfy every ambition, especially if significant cost is involved, there are many ways to increase skills, experience and confidence - for example, secondment, working on a new project or providing manager-led training. Knowing that their manager is showing an interest in helping their career development is important to employees, especially in uncertain times.

Both these types of activity will help you identify the team members most ready to make a fresh start on tackling the issues that affect you all and who can be your allies in the future.

[BX] Miranda Kennett is an independent coach.

If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email:

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