Have you ever had a persistent, sinking feeling that another shoe was about to drop?
If you work in corporate America, you probably have had that feeling a few times particularly when your company was going through a difficult period. I know I have.
In that moment, you undoubtedly looked to your leaders for support.
Early in my career, our company lost several pieces of business in rapid fire succession. Not surprisingly, layoffs followed. I suppose out of an attempt to reverse course without firing too many good people unnecessarily, the organization did not execute one massive blow. Instead, we suffered a “series” of medium sized rounds of people being called into HR, returning red eyed, disappearing into their offices for a period of time, and emerging with a box full of the items that once made their offices special to them.
Needless to say, the atmosphere was rife with uncertainty and stress wondering who was next. Correction, wondering if “I” was next.
Having only known the flush of organizational success up until that point I, like a lot of my coworkers, was relieved when the head of our department called a meeting with the entire team. As soon as news got out that there was going to be a group meeting, the chatter became electric.
“He’s probably going to tell us that the layoffs are done.” “Do you think everything is going to be ok now?” ” I’m so glad that we are finally going to know what is really going on.”
There was still a bit of nervousness but anticipation of relief was definitely seeping into the atmosphere.
With paper and pens in hand, our entire department filed into what quickly became a cramped, standing room only inner conference room. There was a din of conversation as we waited for our boss to arrive but mostly we were sitting like obedient school children waiting for the principal to begin assembly.
Finally, Jim came in. He was a gruff, middle aged man with flash of stark white curls on top of his head. A head which was firmly down and staring at the ground as he entered the room.
Jim stood in front of us now. He looked up, said “I heard that people were nervous. That everyone is uncomfortable and I should say something.”
“Well, here’s what I have to say. I don’t know what is going to happen. I don’t know if there will be more layoffs. This is advertising. If you can’t take the uncertainty, get the hell out of it now.”
With that he turned and left.
What the heck just happened? Where was that warm and fuzzy speech that was going to make us all feel better. Wasn’t it Jim’s job to make us feel safe in our jobs?
Now, years later, I realize how strong a leader Jim was being to us that day.
He was charged with a crappy task – wanting to make people who counted on him feel like he had it covered but knowing that some things were not within his control. Instead of treating us like kids waiting for assembly, he treated us like adults. He treated us like partners.
Yes, maybe he was a little rough around the edges but he was right. Advertising is a tough business not for the faint of heart and there would be many more episodes like this in our future.
Jim gave us the truth. In so doing, he gave all of us a choice. We were no longer sitting ducks waiting for a shoe to drop. We could decide to leave and escape the uncertainty or we could choose to stay and do the work we loved.
Virtually everyone in that room chose to stay.
We stayed because as much as it felt like Jim punched us in the stomach that day with his tough talk, he had earned our commitment in all of those days that led up to “assembly.” We knew he cared about us and we trusted that he would work his butt off to do what was best for us.
Today when I talk with executives and workers alike, it is clear that situations like this cause some of the greatest opportunity for strengthening commitment, as Jim did, or losing people to an environment of fear.
Those in senior positions often struggle with doling out the sometimes harsh truth because they don’t want to seem too tough, like they don’t care. Because of this, they use words that are meant to “soften the blow” but instead unintentionally obscure the truth and deepen and environment of uncertainty.
Or worse, they choose not to address the issue at all.
Nervous employees are looking for communication from their leaders and are frustrated with bosses that they see as “hiding their heads in the sand” or double talking.
It was tough for Jim to come into that room that day. He had to say something that no one wanted to hear. Yet, he did what strong leaders do.
He was visible. He communicated with us. He told us the truth. He showed us he cared.
How comfortable are you with communicating difficult news to your people?
Sandi is a Leadership Consultant and Speaker who works with executives to transform Bosses Into Leaders. You can follow Sandi on Twitter @SandiCoryell or reach her at thecoryellgroup.com