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Improving Morale and Trust in a Recession

Dear Crucial Skills,

Our company is going through tough times in the midst of the current financial downturn. We are not downsizing but have been instructed to cut expenses, work more efficiently, and basically do more with less. We have implemented many initiatives—including staffing to workload, reducing overtime, and purchasing more efficiently. All of these initiatives have caused a decrease in employee morale and management is now seen as the enemy.

We have tried to communicate the reasons we are making these changes—including trying to avoid layoffs—yet the anger and overall unhappiness continues. What more can we do?


Dear Misunderstood,

First of all, let me set your mind at ease that you are normal. And your employees are normal. And that’s the problem.

There’s nothing more normal than resenting those whose decisions create pain or disappointment for you. In fact, that very instinct has been key to the survival of our species for millennia. Evolutionary biologists explain that the human tendency to rationalize our pain by blaming others is inherited from a time when our survival was dependent on being suspicious of those around us. When you and I meet a stranger for the first time, we are hard wired to assess two things: 1) Do they mean me harm? and 2) Are they capable of carrying it out? By perpetually scanning our environment for threats, we live to enjoy another day.

However, in the last couple of hundred years, this tendency became very maladaptive. In complex organizational life, our knee-jerk tendency to assign bad motives to those who inconvenience us creates rampant mistrust, dysfunctional conflict, and as you point out, resentful disengagement. All of that is a long way of saying, welcome to the human race.

It’s also a way of leading to my main point: overcoming this natural tendency requires extraordinarily skillful influence—the kind few leaders practice. Most leaders harbor a naïve hope that a few PowerPoint slides and a perky e-mail or two will overcome this massive genetic inertia toward the negative. Fat chance.

Your only hope—as we describe in Influencer—is to change how you change minds. Here’s how.

1. Discard verbal persuasion. Most of our influence attempts in these circumstances value efficiency over effectiveness. We hope that if we simply reason with people and share logical information they will see the wisdom of our decisions. Give it up. That’s just not going to happen. When you cut costs by reducing people’s overtime, decreasing their discretion and forcing them into unfamiliar tasks, they’re going to want someone to blame. And there is a short list of suspects. You can’t talk them out of conclusions they are hard wired to draw.

2. Create an experience. Your hope lies in engaging your employees in the problem before you present a solution. Before they will appreciate the insoluble tradeoffs you faced as you tried to make humane decisions, you’ll have to put them in the exact emotional and intellectual position you were in and give them the opportunity to mentally appreciate the predicament. And this isn’t the work of a five-minute announcement. You need to set up the problem, involve them in struggling to find solutions, help them confront their simplistic tendencies, then agonize all over again about additional options.

For example, I worked with a large aerospace company that had to make drastic changes in benefits in order to remain competitive. The leaders knew the decisions would be unpopular but wanted to help people understand they did not make the decision exclusively on behalf of shareholder interests. So they gathered groups of opinion leaders from across the company and treated them to the same agonizing set of tradeoffs they had faced. At the end of these three-hour sessions, they asked the group to make a recommendation that satisfied all the criteria the leaders had to address. Every one of the opinion leader sessions ended with a highly split vote about what to do. After a half dozen of these sessions, the story went out through the grapevine that “This was a really tough decision and our leaders did their best to get it right for us and all our stakeholders.” There was hardly a complaint when the tough changes came down—because key employees were not given a lecture, they were given an experience.

If you want to create understanding, you need to create the problem in people’s minds before you present the solution. They need to experience it, own it, play with alternatives, then feel the weight of balancing the tough tradeoffs.

Now let me be clear, I am not suggesting that leaders abdicate decision making. I am not attempting to describe a process for democratic deliberation in organizations that must make fast-paced decisions. The process used at the aerospace company gave employees an opportunity to critique a decision that was already made. If leaders had the time, they might have used this as a consultative process as well as to give them input. But in the end, they would have still made the call.

I applaud your efforts to analyze what you have done well and what you could improve. It is clear that you have a deep concern about the welfare and sentiments of your team. I’m confident that, with continued reflection, you’ll increase your influence for good.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

3 thoughts on “Improving Morale and Trust in a Recession”

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  2. Steve

    “Evolutionary biologists explain that the human tendency to rationalize our pain by blaming others…” And the Creationist can look to Adam for blaming the woman he was given for eating the apple. Regardless of what one believes – the blame is always passed.

  3. Darrell

    To add to Steve’s point above, I’m not sure the explanation from evolutionary biology is even necessary. Whatever the root cause, it’s natural for people to blame those they see as causing them pain. That’s your point and I doubt anyone would argue with it. I imagine you were aiming to give this tendency some logic or rationale but, for me anyway, it actually didn’t work. I find the explanations of evolutionary biologists logically untenable. They typically retrofit explanations to phenomena from the perspective of today or what makes sense to them, rather than basing explanations on evidence. By contrast, I think one of the true strengths of VitalSmarts’ material is that it’s based on solid social science research that is both logical and understandable.

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