How do you recover leadership and credibility after you’ve killed morale?

Work in a bad environment? Feeling blue about your job? Stressful layoffs, reorgs, and company politics getting you down? That’s ok — have a snack on the company — free junk-food (laced with anti-depressants) will make all your worries go away. Any company willing to invest its own money in bulk junk food clearly values you, so munch away on us!

Today I was walking down NE Silicon street and there was quite a buzz. I stopped on the corner to catch the news and here is what I heard. (Now you know how word on the street goes. It gets changed, embellished, or turned into lore. I’ve even known parents who fabricate these stories to scare their kids away from growing up to work in the software industry, so if this sounds familiar to you, it is only because you work in America – land of Dilbert and Office Space.)

Here is the story:
A typical small but rapidly growing company gave an entire department of employees, probably about 7% of its staff, an ultimatum — your department is being shut down; you will be transferred to a new job; new boss; new responsibilities and you will like it (we’ll check back after X days – draw some blood, do a polygraph test, and ensure that you like your new job — if you don’t, you’ll be let go) or you will ‘choose’ to be laid off now. You have until tomorrow morning to decide.

The next morning, the entire department decided to walk.

Before the ultimatum was given, there was great discussion and number crunching among the executives. It was agreed that the numbers clearly showed that they could expect a 25% “attrition” of the 7% offered the ultimatum. A few people, those pesky questioners who you can already identify as the bad apples (like me), will certainly go, but the good ones – the ones who need their jobs and have stuck through whatever abuses have been heaped on them in the past – will stay. Imagine the shock when 100% of the 7% left.

OK — so far I’ve been trying to be sarcastically entertaining, but now I’m actually serious. This kind of event in a company is a real morale killer. It is one thing to have a big lay-off, to re-organize several groups in a company, or to switch methodologies as a response to changing times and technologies. This kind of event always creates perceived (if not real) instability, and some people will leave. Most people can wrap their brains around these common corporate events and turn to a Dilbert cartoon or tell themselves that they weren’t laid off because they are really good at their jobs, or whatever it takes to rationalize the uncertainty, guilt, and fear that employees often feel after lay-offs and reorgs. However, giving an entire unified group of people, many who have worked for you for 5+ years (In the software business, years are like dog-years. Being able to stay in a single software job for 5 years is equivalent to 25 years in a government position.), some who have been promoted multiple times and clearly were considered exemplary performers — giving these people a choice to buy into the new system or leave — and having them all ‘choose’ to leave — isn’t a typical lay-off/reorg occurrence. In fact, it is a statement. It is leadership from the lower ranks, the little guy who really needs a job saying, “You know, you can only push me so far. I’ll give up my luxuries and risk unemployment in exchange for never working for you again.”

The serious part is, how do you recover from this? Now, as the leader of your company, you need to explain something pretty negative that you put into motion, not just a few folks who didn’t fit in anymore (like me and my ‘deserved’ firing). You have to explain a unified group of well-liked people choosing to leave. No matter how you spin it, this looks to the remaining employees like you did not offer a reasonable ‘choice.’ How do you settle people down, get them back on board with the “new” plan so blatently rejected by their now-ex-coworkers? How do you get them through the grieving of losing people who they worked with and respected 40+ hours a week? You need to get the people who remain to trust you again and feel that you aren’t going to do this to them, because you value them in a way that you didn’t value the others. If you can successfully get this message across (and possibly come off as sincere) then the typical rationalization that goes on after these events can begin. You can pray you’ve stocked your company with emotional eunuchs who are just there for the paycheck and aren’t phased by these events – but that just isn’t reality. People say “It’s just business,” but most of them feel insecure, fearful, and don’t trust you anymore.

One company’s solution was to provide free snacks for everyone, starting the day after the morale killing event. One day – a shocking morale killing event happens. The next day – no problem, don’t worry, your company loves you, look we bought snacks.

My intial reaction is I am absolutely incensed at how condescending and disrespectful this is. Is the value of my livlihood – are 40 hours+ of my life week after week – worth only the value of a free cookie? Maybe when I was 5 and fell down roller skating, a cookie helped me forget about my skinned knee, but I am not 5 anymore. Anyone who has any respect for me will acknowledge the situation in a way that coincides with my age (36), professional experience (9 years in this field), and IQ (off the charts). A cookie just doesn’t even begin to do that. Plus, I have high cholesterol and can’t eat your damned cookie anyway! (I can eat a chicken (or tofurkey) in a pot, though.)

A little reflection, though, led me to realize one positive thing about this seemingly cheap and transparent attempt at calming the troops. People will talk about what happened. They will need to process it together. They will blame you; they will say negative things about you; they will say the middle-managers are spineless … did they know – did they not know … who do we trust? You can’t stop this behavior – it will happen. Let the employees do it — let them say what needs to be said, explore the possibilities, bond over it, process it, and move on. Facilitate it by providing a place and a reason (snacks) to gather around each other and hash it out. As the executive, stay away, keep your ego in a box, and let them do what needs to be done to move on. Don’t take names and punish the gossipers later – stay away and let them work through it. In a way, this is an insightful and kind of healthy (emotionally healthy, not physically – the snacks actually contribute to obesity, diabetes and heart disease) acknowledgement that people will need to ‘detox’ after such an incident.

I guess the problem I have is – can companies that put their employees in such ‘rock and a hard place’ situations turn around and do something so insightful into human behavior? My benefit-of-the-doubt is melting away, like butter on the popcorn at a lame morale-building company event.

Morale building (or re-building in this case) events at work has been a recent topic on the Scott Berkun blog. Check out this post and especially check out the comments: A lot of people have interesting experiences and opinions that executives could learn from.

Something the article doesn’t address, though, is once you have gotten something so…how do I say it…. Once you are at the point where an entire group of employees chooses to leave you and your new ideas and your paycheck – how do you get the people who remain to continue to believe in you and your ideas – without just coming off really lame or condescending? I actually think companies have to grapple with this more than I’d like to admit. How do executives come back from “the abyss” as strong leaders with credibility?

One Response to “How do you recover leadership and credibility after you’ve killed morale?”

  1. uninspired says:

    I received an email from my friend, Uninspired #225, saying, “For another great romp in office absurdism, read this new, entertaining novel :Company, by Max Barry.”

    Check out the author’s website: I haven’t read this book yet, but I am definitely intrigued.

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