Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Healing Employee Emotional Cracks

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During this recessionary period many employees feel that they have been left holding the short straw, being treated as a readily available commodity or simply as an unnecessary cost by their organization. And while large percentages have been laid off in many organizations, the biggest concern that many organizations now have is how do we re-engage the survivors? How do we make them feel like the organization cares about them and that they should be loyal to the organization, working diligently for its success, when the organization has demonstrated quite recently and vividly that it will cut through them, as a warm knife cuts through butter, in order to insure the survival of the organization as a whole? How can the organization make employees trust them again, how can it turn them once again into loyal employees? Exacerbating the challenge in some organizations are the rewards that certain executives heaped upon themselves as they laid off large components of the workforce.

If you prick an inflated latex rubber balloon with a pin, the popping sound you hear when the balloon bursts is not from the rush of air escaping through the pin-hole in the balloon, rather the pop you hear is from the speedy propagation of cracks in the latex skin of the balloon breaking the sound barrier. The more tightly stretched out the balloon skin is, the more energy it contains and the larger the pop when that energy is finally released. The popping noise is literally the noise of the balloon tearing itself apart.

Employees have been asked to do more and more with less and less, and as salaries have been fixed or reduced, 401k matches canceled, health care benefits evaporated and people laid off, the organizational latex has been stretched almost to the breaking point and it contains an enormous amount of energy waiting to be released. As the economy improves some organizations which are not perceived by their employees as acting at all to preserve jobs, or as looking out for the interests of the average employee have created situations where it will take but the prick of a pin for organizational life-threatening cracks to rapidly propagate throughout the organization.

The popping sound you may hear propagating throughout the organization may take the form of skilled and valuable employees leaving, lower quality in products and services delivered to customers and clients, a lowering in productivity and efficiency, an increase in absenteeism, employees not acting as brand advocates, and an openness to third party representation and other forms of protection from the reoccurrence of the abuses people perceive they received. Employees have been on an emotional roller coaster that have left them bruised and battered these last few years and we may learn something on how to help employees heal from this trauma by taking a closer look at what we know about human emotion.

Emotions evolved and became a survival mechanism in animals long before humans came onto the world stage. As we evolved into humans these pre-existing emotional mechanisms came along with us, and they developed with 2 essential elements. They turn on when the external world demands it, and they turn off when the external world situation changes. Try this experiment (Darwin did). Put your face up near the glass of a poisonous snake exhibition at a zoo. Tell yourself logically that the snake can’t hurt you and you will hold your ground, not moving if the snake lunges at you. When the snake lunges, coming towards your face you will automatically jump back, you will not be able to help yourself as a natural emotional instinct (fear) will take over, attempting to preserve your life. The underlying mechanisms that generate emotions are generally now categorized as fear (imminent threat), sadness (loss of attachment or status), anger (blocked goal pursuit), disgust (exposure to or ingestion of unpleasant substances), and happiness (success in goal pursuit). The neurobiological mechanisms that cause these states to arise are now well understood and can actually be seen by brain imaging techniques as people experience them.

The immediate emotions that employees in organizations during this period have experienced include fear of layoff or from the implications of salary cuts, sadness when their friends have been let go or from having to take lower level reassignments, anger from having career and life goals seemingly further out of reach and if the executives are perceived at having enriched themselves at the expense of others, disgust. There is also a well-document notion of survivor guilt, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can come from the happiness of not losing your job, while those around you have fallen, making you feel as though you somehow bear some responsibility.

The humans mind has evolved beyond primitive real-time underlying emotional mechanisms and one part of that evolution is our ability to create mental models which allow us to think emotionally about things in the past and to anticipate the emotions we may experience regarding future events. For instance a feeling of depression or feeling low can be achieved simply by thinking of negative events that we experienced in the past and how many times have you heard the line “imagine yourself in a happier place” as a way to get people beyond the emotions they may be currently experiencing.

Emotional problems and mental illness can occur when our modeling of past or future events are interpreted by our bodies as immediate and real, and our bodies react accordingly, never switching off the emotional thrusters, if you will. Some therapies for treating anxiety or depression focus not only on the emotional state itself, but on the individual mental model which allows those emotions to become all encompassing. If you can control the mental model you will be better able to control the emotions it engenders. As an example one treatment for survivor’s guilt in the workplace involves helping people come to the realization that they are not the reason why others have lost their jobs and that they too are suffering. Once their own suffering is recognized, they can come to grips with it and move on with their lives.

As an aside, because I am writing part of this on Valentine’s Day, in contrast “love” is typically thought about as having 3 separate biochemical processes which act in concert rather than as an underlying emotional state. One part is arousal or the sex drive, which causes you to seek out potential mating partners. Another is the feeling of “love” which has been tied to levels of cortisol, which kick in during stressful situations and possibly to serotonin. Lower levels of serotonin can cause obsessive thinking and both of these hormones together focus your attention on one person at a time. In addition, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, are released during orgasm, and can make you feel deeply attached to or responsible for the person you are with. The third component or mechanism attributing to the feeling of love is attachment, and while the underlying hormonal process there is unknown, the mechanism creates an ability to tolerate another person long enough to have offspring and possibly raise them until they can be independent. When a person says they love their job, it would be very interesting to measure their hormone levels at work and see if any similar chemicals are released during the work day.

Emotional distress is not an isolated event which only a few people experience and even though many are uncomfortable talking about it, a new study that aimed to estimate what percent of the population suffered from either depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol dependence or marijuana dependence for at least a brief period, found that 60% of the population, a majority, experienced symptoms that rose to the level of benefiting from treatment by the age of 32. By middle age that number is likely to be even higher. There is no reason to assume that the percentages for people in the workplace would be any different.

It was also found that the most of those sufferers recovered after a brief period either on their own or with professionally administered treatment. Emotional distress and some mental illnesses, rather than commonly thought of as affecting a small portion of the population, stigmatizing them with a life-long affliction, would be more accurately described as a passing cold, at some point in your life you will likely get it, but then are very likely to get over it. The study’s author stated, “Like flu, if you follow a cohort of people born in the same year, as they age almost all of them will sooner or later have a serious bout of depression, anxiety or a substance abuse problem.”

Taking employee’s emotional states into consideration, an organization that desires to re-engage its employee population at this time has at a minimum the following options at its disposal:

  1. If the senior management team has lost all credibility with the employee population, this may be a good time for them to retire and for succession plans to kick in.
  2. The distress the employees have gone through should be publically recognized and discussed. At the same time the stress the organization has experienced should be recognized along with the steps taken to improve the resiliency of the organization from a reoccurrence.
  3. Counseling should be given to those employees who would benefit from treatment.
  4. The organization should work to restore employee confidence in its functioning including:
    1. improving internal functioning, changing and modernizing the way the work gets done
    2. create more competitive products that are attractive and in demand within its markets
    3. describe the level of job security the remaining employees have and the conditions that would allow that security to be maintained
    4. describe a compelling vision of employees personal futures creating a model of the future that breaks with the negative emotions that may be swirling
    5. build career security for the employees by providing training and development opportunities that are transferable to other organizations, building self-confidence.
  5. Listen to employees, though feedback mechanisms such as skip-level interviews and employee surveys, open channels of communications that you may have closed during the recession.
  6. Create a social communities within the organization to help bring the employees together, allowing them to support each other.
  7. Provide the employees with the tools, resources, information, training etc. that they need to succeed and thrive within the new organizational environment.

Much of the emotional distress that employees are experiencing will heal fairly rapidly as people tend to be resilient, and if given the right conditions that allow them to behave in a resilient fashion, most will be able to rise to the challenge. Both the organization and the employees have a role to play in assuring organizational success and the best path forward is to transparently discuss the past events as well as the future vision of what the organization can become, and then acting vigorously on that vision.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 14, 2010 at 8:53 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Jeff, I think your blog post is totally on target in describing the psychological and emptional issues that survivors of layoffs deal with. I would add based on my experiences managing survivors and doing research with surviviors, that it was also very important to survivors how the layoffs were handled and how fair things were perceived to be. No process is ever perfect, but the more objeective the criteria and transparent the communications,, the better. It was also important to them that those that were laid off were treated well and with resepct.

    I agree that people are resilient and given the right set of actions and time, things can rebound….but trust returns much slower and sometimes not at all.

    Andrea Goldberg

    February 17, 2010 at 2:13 pm

  2. Excellent excellent thank you for talking about this. Your suggestions are very specific and I think I’d love to be in an organization that would implement your suggestions. I think I will read more of your writing.

    Julia Smith

    February 18, 2010 at 12:59 pm

  3. Excellent insight into a very provocative issue. Thank you for sharing.

    Craig Benner

    July 16, 2010 at 4:58 pm

  4. Thanks — makes sense. Maybe the next wave in management training is to teach people the basics about their own species. Emotional management — there’s a course in there somewhere, and everyone can benefit from it.

    Speaking of happiness, this reminds me of a manager I once knew whose philosophy was to not tell his employees how well they’re doing because that would, in his words, “give them a sense of entitlement”. Ultimately many of them felt they were entitled to work somewhere else.

    Daniel Baitch

    July 19, 2010 at 1:10 am

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