Twelve Things News Managers Can Do When Loyalty Is Low

Here’s what I tell news managers about employee loyalty in these chaotic times: If you see staffers wearing company logo shirts, don’t assume it’s pride; they may just be out of clean clothes.

But that’s not all I tell them. I talk about the importance of managing the new employee loyalty. It takes a new mindset and a new skill set.

Let’s start with the mindset. In the past, as a newsroom manager, you saw yourself as The Good Boss:

  • You assessed and assigned talent.
  • You developed front line teams and bench strength.  
  • You expected staff to be story chasers, not clock-watchers — and to work insane schedules when big stories demanded it.
  • You could project, however cautiously, into the future, advising employees on where their skills and experience might take them in the organization.

And if you invested time, training and trust in a staffer, you expected commitment in return, not just to the work but to tenure. You may have even felt betrayed when one of your journalists jumped ship. You may have assumed there was an implied contract, one your talented employee violated by signing on with another team prematurely or ever. That’s how loyalty was often defined when times were good.

That was then. The contracts have changed — and so must your mindset. Let me bring in an expert to help here.

Daniel Ariely, MIT’s engaging economist who wrote the best-seller “Predictably Irrational,” talks about the difference between market norms and social norms — and it applies directly to what newsroom leaders face today. Social norms drive the good things we do for each other with no expectation of immediate reciprocity. Market norms drive cold business exchanges: value for value.

As a good news manager, you understood how social norms grew loyalty. Rules and policies notwithstanding, you issued secret comp days to hard workers, tweaked work shifts for good employees with special needs, took chances by re-assigning underperformers to new roles in which they might thrive, and found ways to tap even the tightest budget to share perks and rewards. You treated the staff like humans, not head count. Yes, you were doing business, but the social norms made work better for everyone.

Unfortunately, today’s economic meltdown in media organizations has infused newsrooms with market norms. It’s about the numbers, the margins, the targets, survival. Social norms seem like a luxury.  Here’s Ariely’s take:

“…the current obsession with short-term profits, outsourcing and draconian cost-cutting threatens to undermine it all. In a social exchange, after all, people believe that if something goes awry the other party will be there for them, to protect and help them… If corporations started thinking in terms of social norms, they would realize that these norms build loyalty and — more important — make people want to extend themselves to the degree that corporations need today: to be flexible, concerned, and willing to pitch in. That’s what a social relationship delivers.” 

“Damn right,” I can almost hear you shouting. So what can I do about it?” You don’t control the economy, nor the demands from corporate for yet another round of cuts.

But you do control your mindset: how you see your role as a manager. You can update it for the times. You’re no longer The Good Boss of the People Who Will Follow You Indefinitely. Instead, you are The Good Agent of Your Staff’s Success — Wherever It Takes Them.

Since you can’t make long-term promises in this chaotic business climate, you make a different deal. In exchange for your employees’ best efforts, their Good Agent pledges a dozen benefits:

  1. To honestly assess their skill sets for the evolving demands of today’s newsrooms
  2. To help them build skills that make them valuable to you and marketable elsewhere
  3. To recognize and address when too much work dumped on too few people increases stress and decreases quality
  4. To set priorities so stressed-out staff can know what to stop doing, do less of or do last
  5. To not be so focused on today’s product or fearful of the future that you’re too paralyzed to help them
  6. To be a student of new and emerging technologies and business opportunities so your people can reap the rewards
  7. To let people vent — within reason – about real pain, anger and grief, without seeing it as an assault on you
  8. To give them earliest possible warning of bad news and good news, too.
  9. To understand and accept that they may have one eye on the door
  10. To not take it personally if they leave, though you’d prefer they stay
  11. To see each staff departure as a reason to communicate with the rest of your team about their hopes, dreams and fears
  12. To find something to legitimately praise, celebrate, laugh about whenever possible

That Good Agent mindset will also make you a Good Boss for these times. It’s your best shot at injecting social norms into the market-driven workplace. It will demand a skill set you may or may not have honed. You need to amp up these skills:

  • Communication: Information is currency in changing times and people need face time with you.
  • Planning: Your failure to be organized can send stressed-out staff over the edge.
  • Flexibility: Your overly rigid adherence to structure can kill your team’s creativity.
  • Learning: You must push past your discomfort with the tech or economic side of media, build expertise and become a better advocate for your team.

Finally, you need empathy: the ability to see the world through the eyes of your staff and to understand why they’re more selective with their trust these days. And if they’re wearing the company logo shirt — you’ll know whether it’s about laundry or loyalty.

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