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September - 2008 - issue > People Manager
Engaging People During Difficult Times
C. Mahalingam
Monday, September 1, 2008
Managers are the linking pins in any organization. With senior managers busying themselves with managing difficult business conditions, the onus of ensuring that people stay focused and deliver value to customers is squarely on the middle and first line managers. Often, there is an undeserved criticism of the middle managers that they spend time passing down orders from the top and consolidate excel worksheets. The role of middle managers assumes even greater criticality during times of uncertainty and confusion. We are perhaps passing through one such period now. The signs of slow down are visible in many organizations and its impact on people is headlined everyday in the media. Some of the critical areas where managers can significantly contribute are the following: Delivering Positive Messages: Even during difficult times, organizations have many good things to share and celebrate. It is never a totally gloomy situation ever. Employee recognition initiatives must continue and good work must be rewarded as business as usual.

Handle Grapevine Rumors well: Managers often get to hear the rumors doing rounds in the company by keeping their ears to the ground. Managers must have their elevator pitches ready and be able to do quick coffee talks or mini group meetings to clarify and provide accurate information and minimize the impact of incorrect rumors.

Keep a Watch on Your Star Performers : While star performers always need special attention, they need even more special attention during difficult times. They are the ones who will find switching jobs easy and will readily be picked by competitions. Hence, significant investment should be made in spending time with, listening to them, and keeping their morale high. They must also be enrolled for supporting company’s communication initiatives.

Enlist Employee Suggestions for Cost Reduction : Managers must elicit suggestions and advices from employees on where and how to cut down costs without hurting efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Ensure the Existing Customer Relationships are Preserved and Enhanced: While customer relationships are supreme at all times, it assumes a renewed significance during the difficult times. Managers need to ensure that every member of the team understands what it means to 'walk the extra mile' in delighting the customers. This cannot be regarded as the job of only those customer-facing staff, but everyone in the organization including those that deliver service to the internal customers.

Work with the HR to Softland the Impacted Employees : Managers must provide suggestions and ideas to Human Resources and senior management to make difficult decisions with a heart for people impacted. Instead of pleading helplessness, they must play an active role in ensuring a humane approach in employee reduction exercises.

Assist Senior Management in Doing Just-in-time Communication: Managers must provide suggestions to the senior leaders on reaching out to the employee base with timely and appropriate communications, including business updates. Experience shows that communication tends to shrink during difficult times while it must actually increase. Managers must play a key role in ensuring more frequent interactive sessions with employees.

Help Employees Find Alternative Opportunities Inside the Company : No matter how difficult the times are, companies are always on the lookout for niche skills. Help employees acquire these new and niche skills so that they can be considered for these jobs. More than anything, knowledge of company processes and way of working are critical for success, and therefore internally moving people will make a lot of win-win sense.

Gather Information from Industry Networks : It pays for managers to find out how different companies are approaching the situation and what lessons can be learnt for adaptation. Many innovative approaches to mitigating the pains of uncertainty can be discussed and decided provided we know what is happening elsewhere in the industry.

Read Gung Ho! : I advise managers to grab a copy of the book ‘Gung Ho’ by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles. It provides interesting insights into how to turn people on even in difficult times.

People engagement pays rich dividends during bad times as well as during good times. Engaged employees say good things about the company and become advocates of the organization. They also walk the extra mile and exert a lot of discretionary efforts needed to pull the organization out of difficult times. Managers have the dyadic relationship with the employees that can make this happen. Another great opportunity for people managers in every organization is to rise up to the occasion and show stewardship. Given the talent and resilience of our managers, this is eminently possible!
Author is Executive Vice President & Chief People Officer, Symphony Services Corporation. He can be reached at mahalingam.c@symphonysv.com
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