Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Positive Management in Times of Crisis

Change has taken on a new and disturbing hue. It is now so rapid that the rate of change is no longer linear but exponential. There is often no time for preparation and it may in fact be over before we notice its effects. This can be very disconcerting.

Most humans seek safety and security; we are creatures of habit and generally eschew change unless, paradoxically, we are in danger. We adapt slowly and do not react well to high levels of uncertainty. In fact it is high doses of these traits that have contributed in no small part to the current fiasco. In fact we can turn into quite difficult creatures when under threat. And organisations, by virtue of the people who work therein, are poorly equipped to deal with human distress and more often than not cause or exacerbate it.

First though, I need to explain the biases that drive my thinking. I am a psychologist and psychotherapist with over 30 years experience in working with people who have been psychologically damaged by what has been done to them at work. I have a vast portfolio of stories demonstrating the damage that can be done to people at work by what I call ‘careless conversations’, on the one hand, and ‘intentionally destructive conversations’ on the other. These conversations also include actions because they say something to and about people. I have also worked extensively with organisations in various contexts and have come to the conclusion that at a deeply fundamental level most organisations are dysfunctional.

What I mean by dysfunctional (and there is a good deal of literature to support my view) is that while organisations might work in terms of what they produce, they mostly fail to create a healthy environment in which people can be content and happy. Organisations are mostly hotbeds of harmony that often pose significant and myriad social and psychological problems for people that have to work within them. Of course this presumes that CEOs/Directors/Managers believe that work should make people feel is satisfaction, fulfilment and other aspects of psychological health.

For the employee it is more conclusive. Research on motivation and work satisfaction does indeed show that we need to think of workplaces as communities in which people are seeking far more than a wage and paying the fees of superannuation fund managers. While most CEOs and senior managers would say that this is obvious, there is in fact more rhetoric than reality surrounding crating workplaces as communities where people can be satisfied and happy. A big reason for this is that characteristics such as empathy (being concerned about people and being able to respond to people’s needs) are more personality-based than organisationally driven and managers do not necessarily have these attributes. Where they do we see a much more functional workforce. There is ample research evidence in the employee engagement literature that shows that workers look for attributes such as empathy, listening skills, interpersonal skill, inclusiveness and openness in managers. Technical skills in managers are much less valued by workers.

So let’s get back to the present crisis. Recent studies about workplace stress undertaken in Australia show that the two most important workplace stressors are job insecurity and conflict with one’s manager. Clearly the first of these stressors is a grim reality given the shedding of the emperor’s clothes and people are quite right to feel insecure. Unemployment rates continue to rise in most industrialised countries in the world. The second, the behaviour of managers, is perhaps where we can make a difference.

Fear and uncertainty have a habit of expressing themselves, for many people, as anger and as withdrawal for others. When we feel anger towards things that we cannot confront (like the financial crisis or senior people in our organisation) we feel impotent and we are likely to displace or project that anger onto those around us. As a result we see behaviours such as:

* A lack of eye contact, warmth, even scowls and ignoring others
* facial expressions of boredom or irritability that suggest ‘just get on with it will you? I’m busy and you’re not important’;
* a failure to give positive feedback and even being negative;
* an irritable tone to the voice; and
* just not being interested with what others are doing.

Incidentally, email can become a tool used by the angry and the insecure to shout at others publicly in extremely destructive and manipulative ways. It enables people to make public things that should be (and were in the past) dealt with over the phone or face-to-face. Sometimes email is a way of expressing narcissistic rage. Eric Berne called this ‘The now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch’ game because the victim is screwed if she/he responds or does not respond. All of these behaviours have a greater impact if the perpetrator has influence or is a manager. The effect this type of behaviour can have is:

* lowered self-esteem which makes people less effective;
* high levels of anxiety and all its myriad symptoms including sleep disturbance, fatigue, hypervigilence, tearfulness, diminished concentration;
* feelings of anger, powerlessness and indecision;
* lack of motivation and volition;
* and low job satisfaction.

All of this is capable of creating very debilitating levels of anxiety and depression and dysfunctional workplaces. To overcome these challenges some help can be found in the relatively new area of ‘positive psychology’. This approach offers the following lessons for managers seeking to develop a positive working environment and a more functional workforce.

A concentrated effort to be extremely positive and warm in behaviour and speech.

Conversations should involve smiles, eye contact, a high level of listening, a recognition of the importance of the other, and concentrating and engaging fully with those around you. Manage by walking around

Awareness of one’s feelings and behaviour and the capacity to change them from negative to positive.

Learning to be optimistic.

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