Have you noticed how many people are responding to the economic crisis in the same way they would deal with the sudden death of a loved one?
In fact, the Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of grief seems incredibly appropriate to the times. Most people appear to be stuck in one of the first four phases – denial (“this simply can’t be happening!”), anger (“string up the evil bankers!”) , bargaining (“I’m calling a credit counselor!”), and depression (“goodbye, Future!”). Few among us have reached the acceptance stage (“Hello, Reality”).
How do we move to the all-important acceptance phase? The first move is not unlike the first one in a 12-step program: once you admit you’ve got problem, you can begin to deal with it.
On Thursday, March 5th, 2009, I spent a day with a roomful of executives who were trying to take that first step toward dealing with reality. The occasion was an executive education session at Harvard Business School about the global economic crisis. I have to admit it was a dreadfully depressing day (I couldn’t imagine how down I would feel if I’d attended all three-and-a-half days). Like other attendees, I felt quite overwhelmed by a tsunami of how-we-got-into-this-mess analysis.
Still, the professors who led the discussion that I attended delivered a healthy dose of medicine. I was particularly struck by the words of Robert Steven Kaplan, a professor of management practice and HBR author (not to be confused with another HBR author, Robert S. Kaplan of “Balanced Scorecard” fame). Professor Kaplan engaged the executives in some straight talk about the crisis and suggested three things that business leaders can do right now to grapple with the situations facing their companies:
1) Overcommunicate. Tempting as it might be to curl up in your office, this is not a time to be invisible. Right now, it’s important to emphasize the vision for the business and remind everyone of what your company is really, really good at. Help your people understand the situation and what they need to do to help the company. Each employee needs two or three key priorities on which to concentrate.
2) Do the “clean sheet of paper” exercise. Now’s the time to sit down and take a fresh look at key elements of the business. “How you would redesign the business if you were starting from scratch?” Kaplan advises. “What are your company’s core strengths? Do you have right mission? Do the employees, the tasks that they perform, the organizational structure and the culture fit that mission? Where should you be investing today?” It’s important, Kaplan adds, to bring younger people – your future leaders – into the conversation. “Doing the clean sheet of paper exercise is a great way to develop key people,” he says.
3) Stay calm. Everyone is stressed out. The last thing anyone needs from a leader is finger pointing, assignment of blame, or a show of temper. “Now’s the time to be a great role model,” Kaplan points out. “Every employee will take their cue from your behavior.”
Finally, know that all things must pass. The crisis will end one day. “If business leaders do the right things now,” Kaplan observes, “we will likely be stronger in the longer run.”
Which stage of grief is your company in, and what questions are you asking about your business?