Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Out of the Organizational Crucible

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This is a reprint of an article I wrote on the 5th year anniversary of 911.

Five years is a long time, yet it seems like only yesterday…

Many of us remember in exacting detail what we did as those tragic events unfolded on September 11th, 2001. I was pulling into a parking spot at work when the announcer on the radio said that they had just been informed that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I immediately thought of one of those small sightseeing planes that circle NYC and thought about how awful that was. I entered the office and went to work. Shortly thereafter it became known that a second plane had hit the other tower and the situation was immediately apparent. I closed the office and a few employees gathered at my house, those that either thought they would have trouble getting home or did not want to be alone as we watched with horror the two towers collapsing. My wife also left her office and retrieved our 1 year old daughter from daycare. The urge to gather your family around you in times of danger is high. Even then at 1 year of age, with little to no comprehension that anything was wrong, we shielded her from the images on the television that day, it was just too horrible.

I have been reflecting on what lessons can be learned from that event in terms of organizational behavior and employee coping strategies. The attached brief piece is on one of those lessons. I hope that you find that it stimulates some thoughts and maybe a bit of reflection.  

“Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge.” – Winston Churchill

Organizations today face unrelenting challenges, the pace of change quickens, quality must constantly be improved, costs must be reduced to remain competitive, workload increases, and management and staff spend an inordinate amount of time trying to determine “how to do more with less”.  Stress is high and getting higher – and there is no end in sight. One of the most common conversations I have with CEO’s, when I present findings on their organizational culture, revolves around the unrelenting pace that their organizations face and what can they do to help people cope with the pace of change. This conversation is almost always prefaced with a caveat: “the workload and pace of change are not going away, in fact they are likely to increase, so don’t tell me to not drive the organization as hard as we do”. What is an organization to do?

One thing to me is very clear. There are plenty of things that can be done to help the members of the organization cope with the situation but they all can be thought of under one main heading:

Give people as much control as possible.

Sometimes great catastrophes can be used as a window providing insight into more common day-to-day issues.  Five years ago, I was in the unique position of being able to examine data from a company that was in the middle of their employee culture survey when the planes hit on 9/11. This company had a facility near the World Trade Center. This facility was destroyed the employees had no where to go. The management employees who were found a place to work and had the responsibility of getting the company up and running again, who knew their future and the future of the company was in their hands, experienced rather dramatic improvements in attitudes in a pre post comparison. Other employees who spent time at home, without tasks, none of whom lost a day of pay or benefits or got laid off, saw a drastic decline in attitudes. Those who had some degree of control over their future, who felt somewhat efficacious, came through a very significant trauma with much more positive attitudes than those who were having feelings of helplessness.

The World Trade Center disaster greatly magnified within this company attitude shifts that you see in companies undergoing less traumatic change. In the ordinary course of business companies undertake mergers, reorganizations, and process improvements resulting in changing job responsibilities. What the employees experience – the stress – in those situations will be the same (albeit not necessarily to the same degree) as the employees making their way through the World Trade Center disaster.

So what lessons can be learned? In times of change to the extent that you can provide employees, whether they be the management staff of the organization or the workers on the shop floor, with some sense of control, some sense of say in their own future, in whatever fashion that you can, you are helping to improve their ability to get through both the normal stresses they face day to day, as well as the stress they face under extraordinary circumstances, even those extraordinary circumstances falling well short of the World Trade Center disaster.  Where employees can not be given control, having a decision making process as transparent as possible, explaining the situation fully, and what decisions will be made under what circumstances,  will help employees deal with the uncertainties of constant change. Here are some of the mechanism’s that can be used to do this:

  • Increase employee involvement in day-to-day decision making that effects them;
  • Increase communications to and from employees about the business and the decision making process;
  • Install processes whereby employee’s voices can be heard – meaningfully;
  • Take action on employee ideas and let them know what actions you are taking and why;
  • Set up cross-functional, cross-strata committees to develop and implement organizational change, so that change is done with the employees and not to them;
  • Utilize a collaborative model/process for change;
  • Treat employees as you yourself desire to be treated.

People’s reaction to stress falls along a continuum. Some handle tremendous stress with very little problem while others can buckle under the slightest stress. Some employees show no signs of stress (until the heart attack occurs) and others begin immediately to show many symptoms (lack of sleep, inability to concentrate etc.). Given the varying nature of how individuals react to stress you will not be 100% successful, but to the extent that you can assist them it is in both the employees’ and organizations’ best interest.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 23, 2009 at 10:32 am

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