Five Things Every Manager Should Do In Uncertain Times

by Gary Markle

Why coaching conversations are more important than ever

When business is down and the future is scary, most prudent company leaders face the coming storm by battening down the hatches and preparing for the worst. And the last thing on their minds? Performance evaluations. Because why on earth would we want to waste time grading individual performance when company financials make it impossible to give out raises anyway? Besides, many managers and employees find abandonment of this tired ritual a small courtesy. A silver lining to the dark cloud of our current reality.

Perhaps this makes sense if you’re still practicing a traditional performance evaluation. If you’re using labels and grades of any kind or tie what you do to annual compensation, curtailing that activity in a down period might seem logical. Then again, I’ve been encouraging you to abandon that practice for more than twenty years now … both in good times and in bad.

But if you’ve followed my advice and replaced judging with coaching, going silent during uncertainty is ill-advised. Programs like Catalytic Coaching do some of the most important work when times are uncertain. It gives employees a chance to discuss their hopes and fears. It also provides managers with an opportunity to reassure those who are safe — and counsel those who are not. Failure to have these vital conversations during difficult times can have far-ranging consequences.

Perception is reality in the minds of employees

I will never forget the damage caused by silence in my first corporate job. I was working for a Fortune 50 oil company during the industry’s first true recession. They’d had so many brilliant financial years that it took them a while to recognize the deep dip in crude prices was destined to linger. And while they did attempt to talk to us in large groups, it didn’t quell my personal anxiety.

I was 29. I had just purchased my first house. We recently had our second child, and we’d decided she would no longer work outside the home. I was four years into what felt like a stellar career as an HR generalist and my performance evaluations reflected it. In fact, I was considered a “Hi-Po,” someone with high potential for continued advancement. I managed a group of nine people, handling benefits and compensation for one of the largest and most prestigious field locations.

At first, I just assumed everything would be alright. But when they decided to postpone annual evaluation discussions, I grew concerned. I knew I was valued and appreciated as an up-and-comer. Yet, I was the last hired in HR for my entire division. What if they adopted a LIFO strategy — last in, first out?

My mind raced through all the logical consequences of the worst-case scenario. The entire oil and gas industry was down, not just my company. My newly purchased home would be hard to sell. We’d probably have to leave the area we’d come to call home and say goodbye to friends and family who followed us there. Our eldest would be forced to change schools. And so on.

Silence isn’t always golden

With every passing day, it got worse. The roaring silence was killing me. I couldn’t sleep.

When I tried to speak to my boss, he was evasive. Finally, I cornered him and got answers to some questions about what was happening and how might affect me.

With eyes fixed on the floor, he confessed that certain aspects of HR would be centralized and moved to our headquarters in another state. Benefits and compensation were top of the list for this efficiency step. As its manager, this clearly affected me and my team. So, I asked whether we would be relocating.

He looked right at me and said, “I don’t know. Certainly not everybody.” I asked, with a bit of fear in my voice, “Well, at least I’ll be relocated, right?” Eyes focused back on shoes, he replied sincerely, “I don’t know, Gary. They haven’t said anything about you just yet. I don’t think they’ve decided for sure about anybody.”

“But I’m High Potential and have outstanding performance evaluations!” I said plaintively. “I was just promoted for the second time in four years. Surely they can’t be thinking of letting me go.”

Looking me dead in the eye, he replied with cold clarity, “Gary, I don’t know what they’re doing with me yet. And frankly, I’m not considered a Hi-Po anymore. I’m fifteen years older than you and carry a much higher salary burden. You’ve got a master’s degree from a big-time university. I have a bachelor’s I got in night school from the local college. Right now, I’m more concerned about me than you.”

Finally, the truth. Cards face up. I could see my whole hand and assess the chance of survival. While this conversation was totally ad hoc, unscripted, and unsanctioned, it was the first talk that gave me any comfort or clarity. I was still scared, but I now knew that it made sense to be that way.

After three months of gut-churning corporate silence, I learned I would be transferred to headquarters, landing a highly coveted position in HR projects and planning. The firm bought my house at my original purchase price (covering a large loss in value), absorbed all my moving expenses — and helped us to purchase a much nicer home in a nicer neighborhood. Adapting to the move was fairly easy for my wife and kids. My team members were placed in jobs agreeable to them. Even my boss did okay. In short, it was a happy ending for everyone.

Breaking employee trust can be permanent

Except … the damage done during that prolonged period of uncertainty and lack of personal conversation did permanent harm to the employment relationship.

I didn’t leave my company immediately. In fact, I stayed for five years. But I made a decision to leave during the silence. Why? Because the company showed that they didn’t care about me as an individual. And that meant I could no longer trust them.

At its core, the employment relationship is deeply personal. For many, their job feeds them — both literally and figuratively. It affects them as human beings, not just as human resources.

Please. Do not go silent during difficult times. Individualized coaching is critical during a crisis. Venting fears and frustrations, discussing hopes and dreams, and asserting needs for focused change are a priority then — as always.

Five things every manager should do in uncertain times

  1. Be honest and direct. Don’t sugar coat a perilous situation. Be optimistic, but also realistic. And look someone in the eye when you discuss matters of importance.
  2. Coach, don’t judge. If your organization practices Catalytic Coaching, you’re one big step ahead of the game. The process places each manager in the critical role of coach. Follow the steps and you’ll have meaningful coaching conversations. Just remember: When times are uncertain, you may have even more to talk about.
  3. Seek to understand. Stephen Covey’s advice still stands: Listen before you speak. In uncertain times, check twice to see that those you coach are healthy and well grounded.  
  4. Dig for emotion. During difficult times, it’s very common for people to interpret negative business conditions personally. Assume this and ask them how they’re doing. Then, listen with your eyes. Nonverbals will often contradict their spoken words and reveal their true feelings. This allows you an opportunity to help them regain a balanced perspective.
  5. Focus, focus, focus. What are the top four things your direct reports can do to increase their chances of surviving uncertain times? What can they do to best assist the company in returning to prosperity? Find those things and eliminate the rest.