Let’s Break up and Make up

Published: Aug 12, 2009

 Workplace Issues       

The recession workplace is "broken" and needs somefixing, post-haste.  That's not really a new hypothesis; these pages haveincluded such sentiments before. Melanie Haniph, in Advertising Age recently, explicitly diagrammed thesituation as the result of three factors: a damaged "psychologicalcontract" between manager and employee, heightened competition that hasput pressure on the environment, and a lack of engagement by both employers andworkers.  But uncertainty -- how long will this last? What else can we doto pare expenses? How can we tell where we're going when the landscape isshifting before our eyes? -- is the driver.  This economic cycle is harsher than anything we've seen indecades, and it's putting a definitive stamp on life at the office. 

Execs are handed a battle plan and when that is branded afailure by the board or upper level VPs, the battle plan changes track.  That happens all the time, of course,but now it's happening at a quicker pace, and with a greater degree of coursecorrection.  Real planning goes outthe window.  Some top managers areeither thrown into self-doubt about their abilities, or burn out whileextinguishing a series of operational fires.

And perhaps for the first time, upper management is just asexpendable as the underlings.  (Actually, there haven't been as manyreplacements this year as last -- planned, forced and voluntary CEO turnover islagging that of 2008, when almost 1,500 chief execs moved on, according to ChallengerGray & Christmas.)  And they'recertainly more likely to suffer increased scrutiny and/or public flogging bythe media.  Remember all those discussions about executive bonuses?  A change at the top isn't just for thoseunlucky souls who sit at the head table at a financial firm; CEOs resigned orwere forced out at companies like DuPont, Tyson Foods and Yahoo! as well(though turnover at this level for financial firms is running at 18%, wellabove the customary 11%). 

All this uncertainty has begun to unravel thesocial/organizational structure at companies of all types.  Some places have thrived on the newopenness that these times demand. At those companies department heads are sharing some details aboutfinances, staffing and goals that were never spoken of before.  Managers are compensating for salarycaps and cuts with small perks.  Inthe interest of efficiency, barriers between the decision makers and workerbees are being broken down, even if the organizations themselves aren't gettingflatter.   Any or all of theseactions can be continued once business fortunes improve.

But in the long run, will we use anything we learned fromthe past two years to benefit the team? It's not likely; the collective conscious has a short memory and isstubbornly resistant to significant change.  But the managers and companies that do should bounce backquicker (and better) than their "back to the status quo"-mindedcounterparts.