Restoring Optimism in a Down Period (2002)

by David H. Maister and Patrick J. McKenna

A down market is a scary time, for which many managers are unprepared. Everybody is focusing on eliminating costs: cutting people, cutting compensation, and instituting new controls. Yet nothing could be more shortsighted (or self-defeating) than relying exclusively on this defensive "circle the wagons and fire inward" approach. It is often forgotten that a manager's key job is to create energy, excitement and enthusiasm - to ensure that each of his or her people work at the peak of their capacity. In rough times, this ability is needed more than ever.

When the marketplace is tough, the only way out is to fire up people to win and serve customers and clients with greater passion then before, not less. Unfortunately, most managerial actions in a down market cause people to focus on their personal anxieties. In tough times, people feel a little helpless, sure neither of what is expected of them (are there new rules?) nor of what to do. In a real sense, they are depressed: anxious, uncertain, insecure and frightened. Enthusiasm, dedication and commitment declines, not increases, and a business cannot win with an unenthusiastic workforce.

An essential managerial activity to overcome bad times is to create (and hopefully, restore) optimism and energy in the workforce. Telling or asking them to work harder or do more, isn't inspiring. To get a depressed person going, you need to provide support, encouragement, ideas and help - concrete suggestions and ideas about ways to do things differently.

Achieving this is all about managing emotions, and you can only do it face-to-face, preferably one-on-one. The paradoxical trap is that, in tough economic times, there's a tendency for managers to edge away from their interpersonal, social and emotional activities, and, respond to the pressure they feel by becoming more like policemen, administrators, cops and bosses (watching the numbers like a hawk).

Employees want to know what you're going to do to turn the situation around. They want to hear about positive actions that are new, creative, a smart idea, a clever response to the situation. If people see the firm acting in a positive "optimistic" way (new marketing approaches, innovative product or service offerings or task forces to do new things) they'll be positive too. But in many firms, all the people see from firm management is a bunch of tactics which come across to them as scared, nervous, panicking, downbeat. These actions are not necessarily wrong, but by themselves they do not convey optimism. Something additional is needed.

Watching numbers is necessary, but so is coaching: offering suggestions, being supportive, a source of creative ideas, helping people think through their roles and the best use of their time. People want to know what the manager is doing to help them get results. They want grounds for realistic hope that they can win, and they want to guidance on exactly how to do this.

Here are a few suggestions for restoring optimism in your organization.

Are you doing a series of office visits, not to give a speech, but to be available to answer questions and offer ideas about the issues each group is facing? As a manager, you're seen (or at least want to be seen) as a smart person who's been there before: you're viewed, and need to act like, a really valuable resource to anyone who can get your time. Now's the time to get out in front of your troops, and act as a creative resource. One way to influence mood is to be the role model, but you can't do this unless people can see you in action. "Off-line" meetings like conferences and meetings don't count as much: it's much more powerful to visit them where they live. You've got to be seen to be involved in the nuts-and-bolts of the business.

Leaders have to be seen to be making their own sacrifice, if others are to as well. What (visible) sacrifices have you made? What sacrifices do your people think you've made? Apart from tighter financial controls, what has HQ done that's different? (Think of New York Mayor Bloomberg's action in cutting his own support staff first, as soon as he took office.)

Are you breaking the (local) logjam of "we can't do anything, it's rough out there" by helping your people come up with action plans? Maybe you can form a visiting committee of senior people to do some of this. Remember, we're talking about helping. You probably have already done revised planning, budgeting, and so on, but the typical employee probably sees this as an oversight exercise, not as constructive help.

Are you focusing your people even more on their own groups. If they start thinking and worrying about where the company or firm as a whole is going, that's only distracting. Keep people focused on what's going on in their area, and back off talk about the firm. Don't hide anything, just don't push it.

Newness is at a premium when people are down: they often can't get it up to do the same old stuff, but give them a new task to perform that they've never done before, and they may have more energy, interest, etc. Hence managers should take very chance to find new roles for people: not major reassignments, but new tasks.

A key activity is short-term action planning with a very limited time horizon (a week, a month.) You don't need performance appraisals right now, and you don't need goal-setting. You need action planning. Goals are ephemeral and a wish-list. An action plan is concrete, specific, understandable, and much more motivating to a depressed (non-optimistic) person. "Tell me what I should /can do" is the normal cry.

Are you sitting down (or having all your middle managers sit down) with each person to say, "Looking at the next month, how much time do you have available? Right, let's talk about what you're going to do with it. What activities make sense for you and the office/firm? Whose help do you need? Let's worry about the next month only, come to agreement on actions, teams, etc, and develop a "contract" that you'll do these X things. We'll meet in a month to see how they went (or earlier if you need my help)".Sounds simple, but there's not a lot of it going on. It works because you can't be depressed when you're busy and active. You turn people's emotions around by getting them doing something, anything. The short term is achievable: the long-term is terrifying.

Are you creating optimism by rewarding early successes, small triumphs. There's a need to increase the number of celebrations, formal and informal. In the past, you celebrated the big things - now you must celebrate the small. And you must learn to use more "currencies". In tight straits, you can't be generous with cash, but there are other rewards, including the following: approval, gratitude, autonomy, participation, involvement, personal interest, support, recognition, visibility (inside and outside the office), contacts, access to information, access to additional resources, access to the manager, task support, titles (official and unofficial), special roles or assignments, challenge and meaning.

Pygmalion is relevant here: Treat people like winners and they'll turn out to be winners. Unfortunately, being micro managed doesn't feel like you're being treated as a winner. The trouble with many businesses today is that the average employee wasn't that energized and excited at the best of times, let alone in a recession: the vast bulk of them felt like cogs-in-the-machinery. If you're going to survive tough times, now's the time to change that.

Copyright 2002.

David H. Maister and Patrick McKenna are coauthors of First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals (

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