“They gave us a whole can of soda” was how my late mother-in-law explained a recent experience when her plane was kept on the ground an extra hour for de-icing. Monica was not complaining; she was framing the delay as a positive. This veteran traveler knows that delays are inevitable.
My mother-in-law’s attitude might serve as a good reminder for anyone who is seeking ways to cope with forces that seem to threaten the economic stability we have come to count on. Falsely, as it turns out — but nonetheless many of us may be tempted to think that the recession is a personal attack on us. Recessions as severe as this are equal-opportunity levelers; that is, most of us suffer.
Managers might do well to keep this in mind as they seek to keep their teams engaged. Our culture is one of aspiration; it sparks our quest for improvement as well as our desire to innovate. Fueling that aspiration becomes all the more critical when attitudes and resources are compromised. So here are some ways to keep aspiration alive while dealing with hard realities.
Know what you cannot do. This part is easy. None of us can make our customers buy our products or services. We can wish for the economy to improve, but we cannot make it so. Therefore, we must accept what is given us and find ways to do what we can do.
Know what you can do. This part is tough. But as legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, put it, “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” Think about how you can prepare your team to think and act differently, in light of tough economic conditions.
Know that you must execute. Lucy Kellaway, writing in the Economist’s“World in 2009,” says that while salaries and perks are diminished, there will be an increased focus on execution, that is, getting the work done. Managers must keep this idea paramount as they nudge their teams forward.
As much as managers may seek to bolster team spirits, they must do so in the spirit of “eyes wide open,” being cognizant of what individuals on the team are going through. Some folks may be laid off; the rest may wonder if they are next. “Rah-rah” does not work. But seeking to take control of what you can control is a sign that no matter the economic climate, you are seeking to make a positive difference.
Accepting reality is no excuse for giving up. We may decide to abandon a project for lack of funds, or even a change in market conditions. That decision is not the same as giving up the company; perhaps the project will be revived in the future when the market swings upward once again. Rather, it is an acceptance that a change has occurred — and that we in turn must change our expectations.
First posted on HBR.org 12/23/2008