The toughest challenge managers face today is cleaning up messes they didn’t create. I’m talking about the after-effects of personnel and budget cuts. A downsizing edict comes down from above. The plan is implemented. Then, front line managers are expected to produce positive results in a negative environment.
I spend a good amount of my time coaching managers who, through skill and will, continue to help people do quality work. They keep on building and rebuilding teams, encouraging creativity and collaboration, and looking for every opportunity to keep employees engaged.
It’s hard work.
That’s why I appreciated a recent, bold blog post, “Down with Knee-Jerk Downsizing,” on the Harvard Business Review’s website. Its authors, Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer, warn that job cuts can be a truly unwise business practice.
Their two main reasons: downsizing can lead to worse financial performance and can have dramatic, negative effects on the work environment. Since I just finished their new book, “The Progress Principle,” I was especially interested in their take.
The writers bring more than their personal opinions to the party. Amabile is a professor and business administration and director of research at the Harvard Business School. Kramer is a developmental psychologist. Their book, based on detailed research, finds that the most important thing a manager can do is help employees make progress in meaningful work, from daily assignments to major projects to career development.
Amabile and Kramer’s studies, conducted in multiple businesses, find that setbacks, even minor ones, erode employee engagement. When that happens, productivity, creativity, work commitment and collegiality suffer. And they argue that “negative effects pack a stronger punch than positive ones.”
That’s why the role of today’s managers can be so challenging. One day they’re doing exactly what Amabile and Kramer say drives great results: setting clear goals, providing staffers autonomy, removing obstacles, offering respect and encouragement. In a blink, those managers find their good work eviscerated by a new reduction in resources, staffing or both.
Will CEOs heed the authors’ call for less knee-jerk downsizing, based on the business case they make in their blog post? (Insert your favorite skeptical, snarky response here.) At the very least, I hope they are haunted by an anecdote in the column:
A couple days ago, a close friend called to say that her company was about to undertake a massive reduction in force. Employees will see the new org chart soon. About 30% of the names — from every department — will be missing from that chart. The CEO has told them that surviving employees will have two days to grieve before they are expected to pick themselves up and make the organization great again.
Imagine being the front line manager tasked with cleaning up that particular mess. Frankly, it’s why I emphasize a new reality to managers I teach. They may be leading employees who care deeply about their profession but have little, if any, loyalty to the company and who may harbor deep resentments about cold-blooded comments like the aforementioned CEO’s. Please don’t try to tell downsizing victims or survivors that “It’s not personal; it’s just business.” Grief is personal.
At the end of the day, the difference between employee engagement and disengagement, between positive or negative teams, between progress or stagnation rests on the relationships between staffers and their immediate bosses. Success is a tribute to the skill and will of those leaders on the front lines who continue to see management as nothing less than a commitment to helping people do their best work.
If you have the will, I promise to keep helping you with the skills.
In this companion podcast, I share four things managers should remember when dealing with downsizing.