Hard decisions demand honest conversations

Published December 1, 2008 6:45 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jamie and Maren Showkeir are co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment (Berrett-Koehler, 2008, $18.95). They also are partners in Henning-Showkeir & Associates, an Arizona-based consultancy specializing in workplace culture.

What situations are corporate managers facing in the current climate of reorganizations and layoffs?

They are operating in a climate marked by anxiety and fear. In many cases, they also are dealing with the emotional aftermath of layoffs -- "survivors guilt"-- and having to ask the remaining employees to do more with less.

What is a typical response from managers to such situations?

Managers traditionally respond by working harder to "control" the situation. This takes the form of either clamping down on information in a misguided attempt to keep fear from spreading and good employees from leaving, or reassuring employees that everything will be all right, even when predicting outcomes is impossible. Although such responses may come from a good place, they are misguided at best, and destructive at worst.

What is the best approach?

A better response is to confront the situation directly with authentic conversations. By getting clear on the difficult circumstances and dealing with the emotions that accompany fear and uncertainty, employees understand what is at stake and can make better choices about how they want to respond and contribute. As a CEO once said to his senior executives, "Would you rather have anxious people running around out there armed with accurate information or anxious people running around making things up?"

What specific steps can managers take?

The first thing is stop the secrecy. Next is a change in the conversation and tactics. Tell people what you know, when you know it. Acknowledge fear and uncertainty. Allow people to voice their feelings and viewpoints. State where you stand, framing the future as a series of choices. Ask for participation and help.

Even if the news is really bad?

The worse the news, the more necessary are authentic conversations. Creating action by recognizing the power of choice, compassion, courage and human ingenuity holds much more promise than being afraid of or trying to manage others' emotional responses to bad news. Trying to manage the latter is impossible.

Can you keep up morale and move forward with such an approach, or are you just trying to not lose too much?

If you see people as self-interested "resources" incapable of dealing with difficult circumstances, it will drive the actions you choose. If you see yourself as responsible for someone else's morale and motivation, finding ways to buck them up or hold them accountable may seem like a logical strategy. If managers and leaders can accept that essentially morale, commitment and accountability are choices people make, then the logical choice is to engage people by telling the truth with compassion, including them in decisions whenever possible, and being transparent about your intentions.

|-- Tom Harvey

Jamie and Maren Showkeir, workplace experts and authors
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