Corporate crises: saying “we” helps to start over

Rules to overcome the difficulties

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 15/04/2015

Azienda 300So many people talk about economic recovery and GDP nowadays, as if GDP alone was capable of telling good tidings to us. The reality of our economy, however, says that businesses are suffering and will continue to suffer for a long time, and so will the world of work, too. And it is not only for the lack of markets and sales that they suffer. In fact, a common cause of suffering and failure can be found in some typical errors in the management of workers during the crisis. When going through long and difficult phases, in fact, we are more likely to commit many serious mistakes in the relationships between the ruling class and workers.

There are more and more big companies that, facing a crisis involving a reduction in the personnel (do not forget that reducing the personnel during a crisis is not a dogma, but - almost always - a choice), move entirely along the level of the “political”: ownership meets trade unions, offers a business plan and the crisis is translated into contracts “politically”, in other words by deciding how many workers to sacrifice for survival – workers who are never considered or heard intentionally.

Other companies, however, when it comes to lay-off, follow the way of the market applying individual incentives and monetary compensation for those who are 'removed'. In both cases, the main subject is missed: the community of workers, because in the first case they are represented and mediated, in the second there are only individuals (often brought into conflict with each other). A company, however, is neither a small parliament nor a set of separate individuals, each one of them tied by a contract with the ownership: real businesses stay alive if they are able to create a living organism of virtuous relationships between all the various components of the organization. When a company enters a serious crisis, there are some basic rules to follow if you want a real worker involvement in seeking solutions and trying to overcome it, sometimes leaving it stronger and better than upon entering.

The first basic rule is called timing: to deal with a crisis it is a fundamental to intervene in time, not when the process is already advanced and severe. Good leadership should anticipate the major crises, and then figure out the right time for taking action, seizing the early weak signals to anticipate the explosion of the crisis. And then you have to start listening to the workers at the beginning of the crisis (whether it is external or internal) and not at the end, when communication perhaps only serves to inform them of the solution already decided on at other levels. The instances of “involvement” by the workers in this terminal phase, apart from not being beneficial, do nothing but exacerbate suffering.

The second rule: if you want to listen to workers, they have to be really heard. An environment of trust has to be created in which workers can say and offer their thoughts, and perceive being really heard. It is a process that requires its spaces and places, and above all takes time (you cannot have a few one-hour meetings to start talking about a serious crisis). Fake involvement is more harmful than a non-involvement. Real workers should be heard, possibly all of them, not just their representatives. The third rule: workers should be approached with a discourse at its starting point, and still completely open, saying that many solutions are possible, involving workers in seeking solutions. I have met some workers who were capable of heroic acts (significant reductions of salary for years in order to save a few jobs), such that their management had not even imagined. And that's because they were taken seriously at the beginning of the crisis, seen as the great value of the company and not only as the main problem. It is clear that in these cases the language used and the choice of words is very important.

A fourth principle is called subsidiarity. Any treatment of a crisis that aims to really get to a cure (many corporate crises these days, unfortunately, just want to get to the sale of companies to investment funds or to liquidation), must presume that the people who can point to possible ways of solution are especially those who are in an everyday contact with work, and not just the members of the Board of Directors who are almost always distant and therefore “incompetent” in that particular job, even if they are responsible for the company's strategy and finance. Without a close collaboration with those actually working inside the enterprise, good and true solutions will not be found, because the most valuable competence is the one in the hands and minds of those who actually do the work and not those who only know it as a story told by the managers or represented by numbers.

Finally, the main mistake to avoid is dividing the community of workers. The true skill of those who must manage a crisis in a difficult enterprise is not to divide, but to keep compact the whole community of work, to create a climate similar to that experienced by sailors facing a storm. But in order to do this it is necessary that the logic of “we” and not only the logic of “I” should prevail, which is possible if managers are able to make each worker feel like the centre of the solution and treat them as if everything depended on them. It is a rare and difficult skill, especially in our financial capitalism. Each of us is a mix of motivations, interests, vices and virtues. It is the organizational culture, especially in times of crisis and with a key role of managers that supports the emergence of the best or the worse in us in the workplace. Every good process of involvement of employees is always very risky and needs good and just eyes, the ability to watch the workers, all workers as something positive and beautiful, and not as lazy and opportunistic. If the entrepreneur, the manager or maybe the unions themselves presume that workers are just slackers and opportunists it is certain that they will find confirmation of their hypothesis, if only because it will create a climate of distrust and negativity that will extract the less cooperative and more selfish part from the people. The first wealth of every business and every organization is the people in it, their skills, their moral energy and their hearts. Crises can be overcome if you have the wisdom and courage to start from this old, great and often overlooked truth.

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