Tough Times Need To Be Acknowledged

by Timothy B. Corcoran on March 25, 2009

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Today’s blog post by Dilbert creator Scott Adams brought back fond memories. He mentions a work group that ordered team mugs imprinted with an unintentionally inappropriate acronym.

Many of us have been part of these teams at work. A cross-functional team is pulled together to build a new product or tackle a major assignment and as part of the team-building process they order mugs or shirts with a snappy new logo or saying. Fairly harmless, except when the brain power exerted to come up with a slogan exceeds the effort directed to the project itself!

I had a related experience many years ago. The business I ran was a traditional print publisher poised on the precipice — either retool and remain relevant in the digital age, or hide under the covers and hope for the best. A colleague and I decided to bring together a large group of our employees to share what we saw in the market and what it meant for our business, laying the groundwork for what would likely be years of fundamental change. The troops were not unaware of the market turmoil, but recent management changes and apparent random cost-cutting had left a wake of confusion. Our HR colleagues strongly recommended against sharing facts with employees (a stance to which they continue to adhere, presumably assuming employees left in the dark are productive employees). Since we were insistent on proceeding, HR decided to boycott the session so they wouldn’t be held accountable for too much information sharing.

Essentially the message we wanted to send was one of hope. Yes the markets were battering us, and yes the corporate parent was tone deaf to our plight and continued to cut our expenses while increasing our revenue and profit targets, but nevertheless we had a plan to succeed and we needed everyone to pull in the same direction. Due to low morale, we had mugs printed with the slogan “The pride is back” alongside a photo of a majestic lion. Corny symbolism, but it served as one small token of the pride we felt in our history and our future. As with most tokens of this sort, many of the employees embraced the message, a few laughed and few weren’t moved at all.

After a nice lunch and more than enough talking heads, we dismissed the employees back to their cubicles to finish out the day. By that evening, HR had convinced one of our new senior leaders that our slogan might be interpreted as a sign of looming trouble for our business. So later that evening they methodically visited each cubicle, taking away the mugs and destroying them. They left no note, no explanation, and refused to discuss the matter with me or my colleague. They would not acknowledge the mug theft program the next day when employees entered their cubes and found the mugs gone. Nothing was ever said. After all, if you don’t speak about bad news, it won’t happen. The symbolism of confiscating and destroying the mugs so the employees wouldn’t lose morale had, as you might imagine, the opposite effect.

Several years of more profit squeezing and a determined failure to invest and I moved on. Since then the company has, naturally, lost tens of millions of revenue and profit, irreparably harmed goodwill with legions of customers, and been deemed irrelevant if not a laughing stock by industry insiders. A senior leader at the parent company predictably blamed prior management, claiming everyone failed to note the market changes.

How many business leaders today are afraid to speak openly about the challenges every industry and every business faces? How many leaders pay more heed to their “mug police” advising them to stay mum because potential legal liability or bad press is far worse than addressing the challenges head on, with conviction and bold action? Too many. Tough times should be addressed. The vast majority of employees are grown ups who manage to get dressed every day, raise their families, send kids to college, make it to work every day without the kindly mother ship directing their every move! Sharing tough times with employees doesn’t mean you’ve somehow created a lifetime employment contract. They know there will be cost-cutting and even layoffs. But I’d much rather foster a work environment where employees know why things happen than one where we purposely keep everything secret out of a misguided sense of fair play.

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