Harnessing culture against upheaval

Appeals to established norms of behaviour and performance can help people to deal with the stress of restructuring.

Industry upheaval and company restructuring can disfigure the cultural landscape of an institution. Standards of performance and norms of behaviour that have been upheld for years may be cast aside as groups of individuals collectively succumb to the personal distress that trauma causes. Appeals to established culture – longstanding shared values, beliefs and behaviours – are a powerful way to escape the negativity that often emerges when people are subjected to enduring stress.

Old values are likely to reassert themselves when stability is regained. During difficult times, however, managers can provide much-needed support by holding firm to standards and norms that promote personal well-being and organisational performance. The challenge is to strike a balance between acknowledging current difficulties, and endorsing positive attitudes and constructive behaviours.

In times of distress, there is much temptation to wail publicly about the myopia of foreign governments, the incompetence of senior management and the injustice of budget constraints. There is a transient thrill in knowing that others are in the same (sinking) boat.

However, no one respects a harbinger of doom, and it is important to encourage people to be cheerful and forward-looking. This is not, of course, the time to crack jokes about the CFA who works in Pizza Hut. Rather, managers should mobilise others to see and act upon improved prospects. This is a chance to celebrate the achievements of the past and build confidence around a vision of a bright future. Leaders can usefully promote the basic and enduring importance of client, employee and business needs. Team members should be encouraged to avoid the political posturing and office gossip that cause negativity and bitterness. People rally around a realistic, concrete plan of what can be achieved now and after the crisis. Level-headed optimism is appreciated, and such leadership affords a role model for desirable behaviour.

As individuals struggle for their own survival, so interpersonal relationships become strained and normal hairline cracks may develop into intolerable fractures. Strong networks within the organisation can be endorsed as a source of moral and professional support. Especially important is the connection with a person’s manager, where an understandable urge to blame more powerful figures may result in resentment and isolation. Similarly under pressure, managers are likely to respond favourably to those who demonstrate empathy for them. Likewise, external relationships – established through speaking engagements, articles and interviews, and networking with peers and service-providers, for example – offer both a stabilising anchor and opportunities to develop credibility and self-esteem. Finally, rich and diverse social relationships can be a source of robust personal support.

When subdued by organisational crisis, many people cannot muster the enthusiasm to press ahead with personal or business priorities, and performance falls accordingly. A culture that endorses the taking of initiative (a predictor of leadership potential) can achieve outstanding returns. Proactivity – deliberately selecting, creating and influencing work situations – is positively associated with career satisfaction, salary levels and promotion chances. A related consideration is that restructuring both eliminates and reveals opportunities. When individuals are empowered to deploy their skills in creative or ambidextrous ways, experiment with ideas and support diverse colleagues, there are individual, team and organisational rewards to be gained. Proactivity increases fulfilment, staves off malaise and fosters optimism.

It is important to accommodate individuals’ preparations for an uncertain future. This means, contra to City culture, allowing time away from immediate priorities for reflection and learning. Such reflection is a fabulous opportunity for the organisation to tap into the latent talents of its survivors. People benefit from developing a comprehensive and up-to-date awareness of what they want from their career, what motivates them to high performance, and what strengths they have that set them apart from others. The book If Not Now, When? by Camilla Arnold and Jane Barrett offers simple but effective approaches to such questions.

Finally, periods of upheaval are a time to relax the highly masculine City culture that values performance at all costs. People who work constantly, sleep poorly, drink excessively (often a form of avoidance behaviour) or cannot relax are more likely to be overwhelmed by stress. Paradoxically, to switch off from the office and dedicate time to family, friends, hobbies and exercise can yield massive improvements in work performance.

The widespread restructuring that attends economic crisis and industry upheaval creates tremendous stress for individuals, and it is vital to acknowledge the risks and other difficulties that employees face. Nevertheless, appeals to the values, norms and standards that were established in more secure times can enable people to stride confidently into the future.

Author: Quentin Millington