To Survive, Reach Across the Divide

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Speak of the devil and you get him. That ancient warning is worth heeding if your employer's business slips to a point where layoffs might hit your department.

No matter how pressing the fear of losing your job feels to you, your supervisor - and his or her supervisor - is more likely thinking about broad issues such as coping with a downturn in market share, revenue, or demand for the company's services. As always when speaking with superiors, your best way to advance your personal interests is to speak to their concerns, rather than directly voice your own.

That means, don't inquire about job-cut plans. Instead, use every chance you get to explain how your own work addresses market challenges and big-picture issues your company faces. Show the boss how you're "connected with the larger perspective of the organization," advises Ruby Rouse, a leadership communications expert and faculty member at University of Phoenix's School of Advanced Studies.

Some Leaders Fostered a 'Culture of Fear'

While most employees yearn for open communication and reassurance their job won't be eliminated, supervisors and executives recently have been all too willing to convey the opposite message. That's the thrust of a recent study of communication within organizations during the current financial crisis, which Rouse co-authored. A key finding is that bosses across a broad range of companies, government agencies and non-profit organizations often communicated in ways likely to undermine employee trust and productivity.

"Any supervisor or manager needs to be able to develop a team," remarks study co-author Richard Schuttler, University of Phoenix faculty member and the author of Laws of Communication: The Intersection Where Leadership Meets Employee Performance.

That requires an ability to build trusting relationships with subordinates. However, seeking to maintain control amid the crisis, bosses often resorted to threats and intimidation. In so doing, they fostered what Rouse and Schuttler describe as a "culture of fear" tied to the ever-present specter of layoffs. As a result, managers who played on workers' job insecurity by making hostile or threatening remarks actually sabotaged their own organizations' productivity.

The study cites comments such as:

- "Be thankful you have a job."

- "You can be replaced."

- "There are lots of qualified people on the street who would love your job."

How Finance Compares With Other Sectors

In financial services, all 67 employees and middle managers responding to the survey expressed some degree of frustration with the way their supervisor communicated during the financial crisis. About half (52 percent) of employees and middle managers rated their supervisor's communication as "effective," while 39 percent called it "poor to fair" and 9 percent said "moderate."

Despite widespread expressions of frustration, financial services actually fared better than other economic sectors in how employees and managers rated their supervisors' communication. Among the 1,150 people surveyed across all economic sectors, 41 percent described their leaders as effective communicators. Within health care organizations, the figure was 40 percent. In technology companies, it was 20 percent (based on 30 responses).

"Workers at non-profit organizations were particularly dissatisfied," notes a press release from University of Phoenix, which funded the leadership study. "Over half the non-profit employees in the sample (51 percent) characterized their supervisors' communication as 'poor.'"

Also, 51 percent of financial services workers said their managers changed the way they communicated with employees during the financial crisis. The comparable figure for the entire survey group was 36 percent.

The Lessons

The authors say the results support their view that management should speak openly with employees about corporate plans for adapting to crisis. "When senior leaders of organizations do not communicate well, rumors are started" and people may act on those rumors due to a lack of reliable information, says Schuttler. "The lesson is that good leaders should provide open and effective communication and do what is needed to keep people free from fear of losing their jobs, so they'll be able to do their jobs more effectively."

When asked to rate their own communications, senior leaders in all sectors gave themselves much higher marks than did those who work for them. In financial services, for instance, none of the 10 corporate leaders in the survey rated their own performance as "fair or poor."

"This disparity across roles was pronounced in the results," notes Rouse. "The way that a front-line employee views organizational performance and supervisor communication was very different from the way a senior leader views them." During the financial crisis, she adds, relations across title levels "were perhaps more adversarial than they had been in the past."

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