Well, who do we blame?

In these uncertain times, it is about taking action as a leader.

According to Stephen Parker, Senior Vice President of BlessingWhite Inc (a global consulting and research company), the ripple effects from the 2008 financial market meltdown have crossed oceans and industries. The numbers boggle the mind — dwarfing the losses associated with the dot-com bust. Even those organizations that appear to be unscathed are holding their breath as the economic drama unfolds in 2009.

Meanwhile nearly everyone is angry, fearful or frustrated — customers, employees and investors large and small. It is not surprising that those who feel victimized by the effects of the market meltdown are now eager to indentify people that can be held accountable for the situation.

So, how are people in your organization feeling right now? Do they feel that you and your fellow leaders are ducking for cover?

It's tempting to retreat from negative emotions, particularly if you know you don't have the 'quick-fix' others are looking for. It is easy to find yourself avoiding the topic altogether or defending your innocence as part of the larger community of victims. As leaders in a time when everyone is relying on your ability to inspire, you don't have the luxury to hide. Put yourself out there in the line of fire. First make sure you're visible. Managers may desperately need heads-down, closed-door time to rework strategies or crunch numbers. However this is the very time when the workforce wants accessible leaders. Visibility reassures. It says "We as leaders are stepping up and addressing these issues head on … if there are difficult decisions to make, we'll make them and we'll keep you informed. Visibility means being available for informal discussion and offering a more personal setting for employee questions instead of simply 'making a presentation'.

Being visible isn't about bringing your workforce to you for a formal meeting. Rather, you need to go where they are. Bring yourself — and your message — to the communities that exist and the conversations already occurring throughout your organization. Join weekly sales meetings, drop by lunch groups, post to your firm's social network and ask to kick off scheduled training sessions virtually or in person.

Acknowledge emotions... directly and sincerely. You may spend hours preparing your messages to employees, knowing that clear, frequent communication can quell rumors, re-focus energy and assuage anxiety. But have you considered why people might discount everything you say?

Those in your organization may be surprised, disappointed and fearful. They may question why you didn't have a better contingency plan for a soft market — "I mean, didn't you guys see this coming? Isn't that why you get paid the big bucks! " They may not understand why you had to lay off half of their department. They may be wondering how much you knew by when — and what you know now that you haven't yet revealed. They may have lost faith in your competence or trustworthiness because you're called a "leader" — just like all those other executives in the news who seem to care more about their bonuses than their workforce. They are disillusioned, worried and angry. It doesn't matter whether their cynicism is influenced directly by your own actions or by the general behavior of so called 'leaders' or 'captains of industry'. Either way they're not likely to be a receptive audience.

Forget the generalities like "I can sense anxiety" or "I know that everyone is worried." Such comments will fall flat and sound insincere.

To successfully acknowledge emotions you need to really think about what, specifically, people are feeling and why. You need to do your homework. Find out:

  • How is your organization's situation affecting them personally?
  • What have they lost — or are afraid to lose?
  • What "undiscussables" are on their minds?

Bring up the sensitive or touchy subject and take personal accountability:

  • "I know some of you are angry with me about this decision... and it's understandable that you feel that way... and I want to talk about it... "
  • "You may be thinking, 'What in the world were managers like me doing while our customers started canceling orders... I think you deserve an answer... I want to address that today..." As a leader, it's your job to stand in the firing line — at least metaphorically. The sooner you step into the tension of employee emotions and honestly acknowledge them, the better. Your candor and accountability as a leader is the first step for helping those around you move from the paralyzing effects of uncertainty and negative reactions to change toward positive actions that will fuel your organization's success in this sour economy whether it persists three months or three years.

Copyright © 2009 BlessingWhite, Inc.