flowing motion

Essential HR in the recession

Posted on: December 3, 2008

The Recession: How big is the problem?

Six years ago, before I left Zimbabwe, I did some work for the UNDP in Harare. Their Representative, whom you might think of as the UN Ambassador, was, as you might expect calm, multilingual, knowledgeable, worldly, and very experienced. He said something to me that was memorable, as I am sure he intended it to be.  He said:

Right now you are in a tunnel, and you cannot see the light at the end. But you will pass through the tunnel and see light at the end again one day.

As it happened, I left Zimbabwe, as have three to four million others, and I have found myself in the ‘West’ in the middle of the financial crisis, experiencing deja vu.

Where are we in our understanding?

The stage theory of bereavement is often criticized, but is nonetheless useful for thinking in an organized way, about catastrophic events.  We aren’t in a deep dark tunnel, as we were in Zimbabwe, and as Zimbabwe still is.  We are in the very early phase of denial.  After this will come anger, then bargaining and at the every last, accommodation.

At the moment, we are still trying to fix things, to make them stay the same. We lop off a few workers here, and cut back on some expenditure there.   And in the process, in all likelihood, we make the recession worse!  We retreat into what we know, or into the laager as they say in South Africa, and cut off all possible creative and generative engagement with the unknown.

But if we don’t take immediate action to retrench and downsize, will we survive?  Won’t we just be overrun, and go out of business?

What is the alternative?

Situations like these are exactly what positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship address. Our dread of the tunnel does not make the tunnel go away. And sadly, our dread of the tunnel leads us to do things that feel so right, yet could be so deadly. For example, is it a good idea to conserve the batteries on our torch?  It is?  When we don’t know how long the tunnel is going to be?  Maybe we need a fresher look at what it happening.

The principle of positive human sciences, whether we are looking at psychology generally, or ‘organizational scholarship’, is to identify the processes that have led to our strengths.   As we have no idea what the future holds, we don’t want to squander those strengths, and more importantly, we don’t want to destroy the processes that generated those strengths, and that will sustain and regenerate them.  It is not just the strength we look for, in other words, it is the process that generated the strength that we seek.

Capital we have seen is as volatile as pure alcohol – it evaporates in a flash.  It is part of the business package.  We need it.  But it is not dependable.

The distinct role and contribution of HRM

Our job in HRM during the recession, is to focus our attention on our human strengths, and on the value of our relationships with each other.  It is tough to do this when people are in a panic.  They want relief from the terror of the tunnel.  And they want relief now.

Calming the panic is our first duty.   When the Chief Executive, to the high school student on-work-attachment, are calm, they bring their technical knowledge to bear, and find innovative solutions that last week, we didn’t know were possible. They turn the tunnel from an object of dread, and real danger, into a place of opportunity and growth.

We also need to remember that some people don’t show their panic.  So we have to judge their mood by their activity.  Are they suggesting solutions, or is their very lack of complaint, suggestive of loss of efficacy?  Calming different personalities, from the voluble executive to the quiet person who falls into passive-aggression, calls on our unique technical training.

Our chances

Will we always succeed?  No of course not.  In business, winning is not a given.  But, if we do not believe that our people are capable of working constructively and together, on the challenges we face, then we can be sure of one thing.  We will communicate our doubt.  And our doubt contributes to a downward spiral of self-efficacy and collective efficacy.  We become part of the problem.

Our ethical responsibility, when we don’t believe in our company and more importantly, its people, is to resign, and make way for someone who can work with them, to find the sweet spot where they will surge ahead.

Sadly, when we take short term actions to ‘feel safe’, we may experience the satisfaction of immediate relief.  We might feel less exposed, temporarily, until our customers and suppliers are in trouble, as has happened in the financial sector.  It is a case of making haste and less speed.

To quote @Pistachio of yesterday.

The world seems to run on courage.  When mine falters, things get so stuck and difficult.  When it flows, things start to flow also.


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Recommended reading:  David Whyte, British-born corporate poet now living in Seattle has a marvellous CD, Mid-Life and the Great Unknown, available through Amazon.

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The way ahead at John Lewis, a British department store where the staff are shareholders in the business.

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.



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