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Give People Belief in the Future

June 1, 2000
Related Topics: Career Development, Ethics, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
AnnSanders, a vice-president with a large financial-services company, is a success by mostpeople’s standards. She has moved ahead rapidly in her career, while managing tomaintain a strong family life. But lately, she feels close to the breaking point. “Mostdays I go into work early and stay late, but somehow I never catch up with the work. There’salways some new priority, some new fire to fight. My boss is mad at me because I’mnot delivering; my husband is mad because I’m always home late; and my kids are upsetbecause they hardly see me. More and more I find myself thinking: Is it really worth it?If not for the money, I would quit tomorrow.”

MarkMiller, a manager for a high technology company, is coping with the aftermath of a majordownsizing. Forced to produce more work with fewer resources, he feels under siege. “BeforeI finish one project to my own satisfaction, I have to start on another,” he says.“I’m not managing anymore, I’m just reacting to events. I really feel as ifI’m losing my edge.”

LindaGraves, a compensation specialist in an HR department that has shrunk from 12 people to 5,is being called upon to function in a generalist’s role, juggling a broad range ofissues. “I’m not happy in this new work, nor do I feel like I’m doing agood job,” she says.

JackThompson was once a highly effective sales manager in a midsize manufacturing company,reporting to the vice-president of marketing. Following a corporate restructuring, Jackreports directly to the CEO and is being asked to play a more strategic marketing role.“I’m great at selling, but handling these more strategic issues just isn’tmy strength,” Jack says. “More and more, I feel that I just can’t do whatthey’re asking me to do. It makes me start to question myself: Am I stupid?Incompetent? I never used to feel that way.”

FewerRungs Left to Climb

Restructuring.Downsizing. Organizational change. As we have seen, these have become fixtures in the newlandscape of work as companies scramble to meet the challenges of an increasinglycompetitive marketplace. Widespread elimination of jobs and reporting levels has createdincreased workloads for managers and professionals, while other jobs have changed to thepoint where they demand different competencies. And, always, there is the relentlesspressure to produce.

Manypeople caught up in these sweeping changes are feeling beleaguered by the demands placedupon them now, and chronically anxious about the future. Often, they are working at such afrantic pace they are losing any sense of satisfaction or accomplishment in their work;are worried about the security of their income; no longer feel that they are making ameaningful contribution; have begun to doubt their own competence; are having increasingdifficulty balancing work demands with their personal and family life.

Atthe same time, many people feel that the whole effort-reward equation has becomeunbalanced. Not only are they working harder than ever, they are often doing so for whatthey perceive as fewer rewards. Their career progress has slowed to a crawl. And when theylook ahead they find it difficult to see where they can go. As reporting levels have beeneliminated, there are fewer rungs left to climb on the traditional career ladder. And theyknow that jobs that exist now may not do so five years from now.

Thissense of malaise is compounded when people are in the wrong job or work environment --something that happens all too often in the wake of restructuring and downsizing. Highlycompetent specialists like Linda Graves, in the example above, are turned into barelycompetent generalists. People with real strengths, like Jack Thompson, are shuffled intopositions where their weaknesses come to the fore.

Perhapsthe most pervasive stressor of all, however, is coping on a daily basis with theall-encompassing state of ambiguity that characterizes contemporary organizational life.People are plagued with such questions as:

  • Will my organization restructure/downsize (again)?

  • How will I be affected? Will I still have a job? What will it be? Who will I be reportingto?

  • What will happen to the people reporting to me?

  • Will this company/unit/division still exist a year from now?

Mostpeople who work for organizations have been socialized to expect a much more orderly world-- one in which the future is relatively predictable, and in which it is possible toengage in particular tasks to achieve particular outcomes. What we are seeing today is apervasive anxiety, as people try to come to grips with a world in which the present isuncertain and the future almost completely unpredictable and uncontrollable. Faced withthis chronic ambiguity, their whole sense of personal efficacy is being eroded.

HelpingPeople Cope

Peoplework to derive a variety of rewards: not only salary and the prospect of advancement, butalso a sense of collegiality with co-workers; a feeling of purpose in their work;opportunities for development; identification with the goals of the organization; a sensethat their activities are instrumental in contributing to producing desirable outcomes inthe future. When these rewards are progressively stripped away, morale and performancewill inevitably suffer.

Thepressures on people in organizations are unlikely to abate for the foreseeable future.Instead we will likely see much more of the same. Jobs will continue to change ordisappear entirely; companies will continue to sell off, or shut down, whole businessareas; new technology will continue to transform how people do their work; market changeswill require an ever-shifting mix of skills. There will be more restructuring, moredownsizing and even more pressure on the individuals caught up in these changes.

Thechallenge facing organizations is to help their people cope with these pressures byproviding them with a renewed sense of purpose. People need to feel that they are making areal contribution in their jobs and that they are valuable both to themselves and to theorganization.

Whatcan organizations do to help their people cope, and restore their sense of the future?Here are five strategies:

  1. Recognizethat people are a nonrenewable resource.People today are juggling demands on many fronts: work, family, finances. They don’thave endless resources for coping with the pressures placed upon them. Eventually theywill be worn down, and their performance and productivity will decline. There is only somuch you can ask of them.

  2. Communicateclearly and honestly.Whether the issue is a downsizing, a potential merger or sell-off of assets, or simply theneed to cut costs and improve productivity, organizations need to let their people knowwhat is going on. When organizations keep their people in the dark, gossip and rumor willflourish -- usually with a much more devastating impact on morale and productivity thanthe plain truth would have had.

    Theorganization must paint a compelling picture of the future so that the staff will have asense of how they can benefit from the coming changes. All too often, senior managers hidebehind closed doors during a significant organizational change. When they come out, theywalk about mournfully, looking like they just lost their best friend. They shouldrecognize what they are actually communicating through such behavior, and fulfill theirresponsibility to deal openly and positively with staff.

  3. Demonstratean appreciation for individuals.Organizations can show that they care about their people in a variety of ways, rangingfrom simple gestures (like taking the trouble to say thank you for a job well done) tomore complex interventions, such as the provision of opportunities for self-assessment andself-determination (see below).

  4. Liveup to the new employment contract.By now everyone knows that no organization can guarantee its people lifelong job security.But what organizations can and should do is ensure that their staff remain marketable,whether inside or outside the organization. And what that requires is supportingindividuals in taking responsibility for managing their own careers. Loyalty can no longerbe bought with promises of security -- but it can be earned, by treating people withdignity and respect.

  5. Provideopportunities for self-assessment and self-determination. As well as encouragingpeople to take responsibility for managing their careers, organizations should providethem with the proper tools to do the job. People should have the opportunity to go througha meaningful process of self-assessment that enables them to plan out their goals. Thiscan be provided in a number of ways, from the “Cadillac option” of executivecoaching to career-planning workshops and one-on-one counseling.

HowEffective Career-Management Programs Can Help

Atfirst glance, this may seem to be a paradoxical suggestion. Why undertake acareer-management program when, for most organizations and industries, so many questionmarks abound about future jobs or careers?

Butit is precisely the uncertainty that makes career planning so vital. Career planningpromotes morale and employability by:

Fosteringself-knowledge:Career management helps staff move beyond identification with their existing jobs and jobtitles. Individuals no longer see themselves as filling a specific job (e.g., “I’ma marketing manager for ABC Company”). Instead, they recognize themselves as theowner of a portfolio of skills and experiences (e.g., “competencies and knowledge inmarketing and sales; knowledge of financial products aimed at baby boomers; team-buildingabilities”). They can then reconfigure these skills and experiences in new ways,either in the organization or outside it.

Restoringa sense of self-efficacy:Providing people buffeted by change with the opportunity for self-assessment can beextremely valuable in promoting individual and organizational renewal. The career-planningexperience builds confidence and boosts self-esteem by reminding individuals of theiraccomplishments. It promotes an understanding of their marketability, both within andoutside the organization.

Throughself-assessment, people have the opportunity to sit back and reflect on how much theyreally are contributing now, if they only had the time to realize it. Reviewing theiraccomplishments gives people a renewed sense of self-efficacy in their work. As a result,their morale and commitment are renewed, too.

Communicating“we care”:Supporting individuals in their career management shows them that management cares and isliving up to its side of the new employment contract. The message is that people do have afuture, whether it’s inside the organization or outside.

Somesenior managers might fear that introducing career planning in a period of uncertaintywill only create panic by leading staff to believe they are about to lose their jobs. That’san old-fashioned concern, however. Today’s workers aren’t fools. They understandthe challenges of the new employment contract and all but a few realize, at leastintellectually, that they are responsible for managing their own careers. Implementing acareer-planning initiative doesn’t communicate they are about to lose their jobs. Itcommunicates that the company wants them to be the strongest and most capable individualsthey can be, and is willing to invest in them.

Someexecutives, of course, might harbor an opposite fear: that the initiative will onlyencourage their best staff to leave. In my experience, that fear is unfounded. If theorganization is properly communicating with its staff, career planning won’tencourage people to jump ship.

Indeed,the opposite has been the case. People come to career-planning workshops excited andappreciative that the company is finally doing something to support them in ensuring theiremployability, rather than simply paying lip service to the new employment contract. Andeven if at times they are nervous because their jobs are vulnerable, they come out feelingsignificantly more competent. Participants realize that they are much more employable thanthey thought, whether inside or outside the organization. People say, “I recognizethat I’m marketable, and I’m comfortable waiting out this change, because thiscould represent an exciting opportunity.”

Consider,also, whether you want individuals working for your organization who aren’t highlyemployable elsewhere -- and are clueless about their appeal?

Preparingpeople for the future:Self-assessment also assists people in preparing themselves to adapt to change in thefuture. It shows them how to look beyond their job tides to identify key underlying skillsthat can be transferred to other work settings. Once people gain a sense of their own“marketability,” whether inside or outside the organization, they will be moreconfident in themselves and less anxious about the future.

Goingthrough a career-planning experience typically assures staff that they have the strengthto thrive in the future organization, whatever its shape -- or that if they do lose theirjobs, they have skills that can be used in other work. That makes them less defensive,more willing to accept change.

Improving“fit”:It’s crucial that organizations, as they change and evolve, ensure that people don’twind up in the wrong slots. By helping people understand their abilities and by boostingtheir confidence, career planning reduces the chance that individuals will grab at anyopening just for the sake of continuing to hold a job with the company. Instead, they willunderstand what roles they are best geared to fit and which ones will further growth andadvancement.

TakeGeorge, for example. A policy analyst at a large firm, he saw himself only as capable ofcontinuing in that role after a merger. But through career planning, he realized that whathad made his unit so successful was not its analytical research skills but the ability ofpeople within it to build team relationships. When an opportunity presented itself thatput a premium on team-building skills, he was comfortable in making the switch, thanks tohis heightened self-awareness.

Self-assessmentgives people who are currently in a job or work environment that represents a mismatchwith their interests and skills the opportunity to identify the causes of their stress anddo something about it. In some cases the solution will be some modification to theircurrent work, to give them more of what suits them best. In other cases,  a move -- whether inside or outside the company --will be necessary to achieve a more satisfactory match.


Thereare a number of vehicles for delivering career-management support for staff during periodsof apprehension and change. The one I prefer is that which an organization would normallyuse for support in career self-management, whether it be a corporate university,leadership institute, management development program, or learning center.

Iam less enthusiastic about some of the other vehicles. Making an Employee AssistanceProgram the sole mechanism to respond to staff apprehensions, for example, can send animplicit message that anyone having problems is not as emotionally strong as his or hercolleagues. After all, an EAP is where you go when you are suffering from a personalproblem. Obviously the EAP must continue to be promoted during this period. But HR shouldalso be stressing more positive and less clinical approaches.

Careercenters have also been used with varied success to help smooth transitions. When thecareer center is viewed as a vehicle for promoting employability and change, it has beensuccessful. But when it is confined to delivering one-on-one counseling support, it canbecome like an EAP program, preoccupied with people who are hurting. That can becomeexpensive and also result in the career center eventually losing touch with the manyindividuals it should be helping.

Inother words, career planning should be positioned to help people:

  • Get started on the process of framing meaningful and realistic career and life goals;

  • Identify their unique work style and preferences profile;

  • Learn how to look beyond their job titles and identify key underlying skills andcompetencies that can be applied in future work assignments; identify the new skills theymay need to develop to adapt to new corporate directions;

  • Make informed decisions about future job assignments;

  • Develop and implement personal career and life plans.

Makingthe Right Move

Tosee the potential impact of an effective career-management program, let’s lookbriefly at the experience of a financial-services company. This company had already gonethrough a downsizing and was about to place one of its divisions up for sale. Acompany-wide meeting was called to brief people on the situation. Although no promisescould be made about job security, management wanted people to understand that theyrecognized their apprehension and demoralization.

Subsequently,the company offered a series of career self-management workshops. The workshops were opento everyone, and over 80% of the employees opted to participate. Through these workshops,people were able to regain a sense of their own marketability. As a result, they were ableto face an uncertain future with much greater confidence. The program had an obvious anddirect impact on morale -- including the receipt by senior management of dozens ofunsolicited thank-you letters.

GivingSomething Back

Obviously,organizations stand to gain some significant benefits from providing self-assessment andcareer-planning assistance to their people. Individuals become more flexible and adaptive.Morale and commitment are renewed.

Perhapseven more important, however, is the opportunity for organizations to show that theyreally do care about what their people are going through in these difficult times, and todemonstrate their concern by giving something back. And what they are giving back isnothing less than the individual’s sense of well-being and personal efficacy.

Workforce,June 2000, Vol. 79, No. 6, pp. 134-141 -- Subscribe now!

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