Part of your job these days is to control the fear factor

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

Managers, like most people, are almost reluctant to pick up the newspaper or watch the evening news for fear there will be more negative news about the economy. We are almost glued to the reports about economic indicators, negatively impacted business firms and political jockeying for attention on the best ways in which to solve the economic problems. There is a great deal of fear rampant throughout society: In all of us, there is the generalized fear of what is to happen to life in our society as we have known it.

We have heard of the Great Depression and see the pictures of soup lines. Some of us know people today who have lost their homes because of mortgage problems. Many managers and executives have seen their 401(k) retirement funds lose 30 to 40 percent in the last year. Fear is an unwelcome visitor.

What is it like where you work? Have employees been temporarily laid off? Have employees been permanently laid off? Have managers been downsized? What is the expectation in your work group about the future? What proportion of your fellow managers has an optimistic outlook for your company? What proportion of the non-managerial staff has an optimistic outlook for your company?

The concept of expectation is a critical moderator of the fear factor. When the fear factor is high, the level of workplace performance is likely to be reduced. And the fear factor can be ratcheted up quickly by variables outside the workplace. Spousal and family pressures weigh heavily on your employees and you.

The future is cloudy for so many and their fear becomes contagious. The threat to the workplace is becoming more real.

But Wayne Huizenga Jr., in his keynote address at the International Marina and Boatyard Conference in Fort Lauderdale in January, said “It’s a tough marketplace out there right now, but it still offers some unique opportunities … It’s not all bad, but you’re going to have to think differently.” He said it’s a good time to invest in your employees and reacquaint yourself with your customers. “Times have changed; needs have changed.”

What might this mean for managers beyond the issues of growth, financing and the recession’s impact on sales?

Remember now that management is about purpose and people. The role of a manager is to align — in harmony — people, talents, energy, commitment and resources toward a common purpose. Despite all the accountability frameworks in today’s modern organization — the management courses, leadership development programs, even columns such as this — the little things that make management highly effective are still not as widely practiced as they should be. Many of these ideas have been offered in earlier columns.

When we consider the variances found in the people we may work with, it is easy to visualize the multitude of the challenges facing the managers. Depending on the level of the manager, there is an array of unusual tasks on the plate to be addressed at this time. However, today there is a new wrinkle that creates additional barriers to being that effective manager: the economy, stupid!

How many times have we heard this in political campaigns? Now it is the reality facing each and every manager. The disconnect arises when the current economy affects the manager’s action and perhaps even the manager’s head being screwed on correctly.

However, there are a number of efforts that a manager can initiate in order to minimize the fear and stress in the workplace. Each can increase the productivity and positive outlook within the workplace. Let me suggest some stress reducers for the workplace during this trying time and beyond.

Stress reduction in the workplace may be viewed as a series of at least four impact points. Any one helps, but the more impact points hit upon, there becomes a cumulative effect on the stress reduction and thus on the productivity growth in the work group.

Formal communications: While there is always informal communications via a grapevine, today there is regular communication from the top management to each level of management and employee in the organization. This communication must be honest; this communication must not gloss over economic problems. Furthermore, the communication should offer specific problems that need to be resolved/solved and that are barriers to success. Seek employee input. This will give everyone a sense that they must work to save the company and their jobs. Be candid and upfront. You will often be rewarded for such candor.

Informal communications: Years ago, there was a concept in many manufacturing firms known as the tool box meeting. Each employee had a tool box and they would gather around, each sitting on their own tool box. The supervisor (foreman) talked about the day’s work and how they achieved their goals, and was able to offer compliments to those deserving of praise. Further, the supervisor would identify challenges that department would face in the next few days. Questions would be encouraged from the folks sitting around. Everyone would leave and feel good about the day’s efforts, ever mindful of what might be on the horizon. Here the formal “corporate” communications noted above would be implemented.

Q&A communications: Workers, supervisors, and managers at every level in the company have questions about where the company is going. Employees fear the worst, so some honest and candid assessments from senior management can be highly motivating to all employees. There should be a monthly forum with small groups where employees should be encouraged to ask questions. In turn, even if the answer is not “good,” the employee will like the honesty of the company officials. In turn, they will go home and share the news with the family. In return, it is likely the employee will return tomorrow more motivated and energized.

Supervisory eyes and ears: More than ever, front-line managers must be the eyes and ears of the organization. Employees who are showing signs of stress need professional assistance. A company-sponsored employee assistance program may be able to assist. Look for community mental-health assistance. Anxiety, stress and feelings of despair can create a dangerous workplace. The human resources department can be the first reference for the front-line supervisor. Increasingly, professional assistance is being needed, both physical and psychological.

Exercise program: One way to reduce stress is with a well-organized exercise program. Local health clubs, YMCA/YWCA and community recreation centers often have equipment available that you can offer at a complimentary rate for employees. The exercise may serve double-duty: reduce stress and reduce weight. Both will yield better health and fewer health-care claims.

The latter two are easier to follow through on, while the initial two will have the greater payoff on the investment made.

Communicate, gain trust, trust the employee and respond with professional care when needed.
What have you done to stem the increasing stress at work during these challenging economic times?

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus — international management at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.

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