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How to Be a Good Boss in a Bad Economy

DBR | 1호 (2008년 1월)
These are tough times for every boss I know. Fear and paranoia are running wild, not just in financial markets but in workplaces, too. A few weeks back a weary executive at a professional services firm told me how painful it had been to lay off 10% of his people and how he was struggling to comfort and inspire those who remained. When I asked a mutual friend, the CEO of a manufacturing firm, to “show some love” to this distressed executive, he jumped in to help—but admitted that he was wrestling with his own demons, having just implemented a 20% workforce reduction.
It was not a coincidence to find two friends in such similar straits; few organizations seem to have avoided them. Even in businesses renowned for having heart, bosses have been forced to wield the ax. NetApp, declared number one in Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for 2009, announced it was cutting loose 6% of its employees less than a month after the ranking appeared. Google, top-rated by Fortune in 2008, has shed hundreds of full-time employees. And layoffs aren’t the only reason it’s a miserable time to be the boss. Where cuts haven’t occurred, people suspect they will, and the lingering dread creates its own challenges. One technology sector CEO I’ve worked with for years felt compelled to inform his people in writing that not only were no layoffs planned but the company would be hiring a lot more people in the coming year. Yet, he said, “no matter how much I share about how safe we are, people still ask, When are the layoffs coming?” Even where jobs are demonstrably safe, lesser but real disappointments occur: Salaries are cut, budgets are pared, projects are back-burnered.
As a result, most bosses—like you, perhaps—are operating in difficult and sometimes unfamiliar territory. Equipped with skills and approaches honed over long years of business growth, they now find their roles defined by an unexpected question: How should people be managed when fear is in the air, confidence is slipping, and it looks as if the road ahead will remain rough for many miles? This isn’t the job most executives and managers signed on for, and not everyone will rise to the occasion. This article is designed to help those who want to do so—first by clarifying why it’s so hard to be a good boss, and then by sharing the essence of what the best bosses do during tough times.
The Toxic Tandem
Let’s be clear: It’s never easy to be a great boss, even in good economic times. It’s challenging in part because of an unfortunate dynamic that naturally arises in relationships of unequal power. Research confirms what many of us have long suspected: People who gain authority over others tend to become more self-centered and less mindful of what others need, do, and say. That would be bad enough, but the problem is compounded because a boss’s self-absorbed words and deeds are scrutinized so closely by his or her followers. Combined, these tendencies make for a toxic tandem that deserves closer study.
To appreciate the first half of the dynamic—that bosses tend to be oblivious to their followers’ perspectives—consider the “cookie experiment” reported by the psychologists Dacher Keltner, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson in 2003. In this study, teams of three students each were instructed to produce a short policy paper. Two members of each team were randomly assigned to write the paper. The third member evaluated it and determined how much the other two would be paid, in effect making them subordinates. About 30 minutes into the meeting, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies—a welcome break that was in fact the focus of the experiment. No one was expected to reach for the last cookie on the plate, and no one did. Basic manners dictate such restraint. But what of the fourth cookie—the extra one that could be taken without negotiation or an awkward moment? It turns out that a little taste of power has a substantial effect. The “bosses” not only tended to take the fourth cookie but also displayed signs of “disinhibited” eating, chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs widely.
It’s a cute little experiment, but it beautifully illustrates a finding consistent across many studies. When people—independent of personality—wield power, their ability to lord it over others causes them to (1) become more focused on their own needs and wants; (2) become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and (3) act as if written and unwritten rules that others are expected to follow don’t apply to them. To make matters worse, many bosses suffer a related form of power poisoning: They believe that they are aware of every important development in the organization (even when they are remarkably ignorant of key facts). This affliction is called “the fallacy of centrality”—the assumption that because one holds a central position, one automatically knows everything necessary to exercise effective leadership.
Now let’s look at the other half of the dynamic—that followers devote immense energy to watching, interpreting, and worrying about even the smallest and most innocent moves their superiors make. This is something we’ve long known about animals; studies of baboon troops show that the typical member glances at the alpha male every 20 or 30 seconds to see what he is doing. And although people don’t check what their boss is doing two or three times a minute, this tendency is well documented in human groups, too. As the psychologist Susan Fiske puts it, “Attention is directed up the hierarchy. Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice versa.” Fiske explains: “People pay attention to those who control their outcomes. In an effort to predict and possibly influence what is going to happen to them, people gather information about those with power.” Further, people tend to interpret what they see the boss do in a negative light. Keltner and his colleagues report that when the top dog makes an ambiguous move (one that isn’t clearly good or bad for followers), followers are most likely to construe it as a sign that something bad is going to happen to them. Related studies also show that when people down the pecking order feel threatened by their superiors, they become distracted from their work. They redirect their efforts to trying to figure out what is going on and to coping with their fear and anxiety—perhaps searching the web for insight or huddling with their peers to gossip, complain, and exchange emotional support. As a result, performance suffers.
Even in the best of times, bosses fall prey to this toxic tandem. In a crisis, however, both sides of the dynamic are amplified. So it’s not your imagination; it is harder to be a good boss in a bad economy. Your own stress presses you to shut down emotionally, to focus attention on what your superiors are up to, to turn inward and wrestle with your fears. The heightened threat causes your followers to watch your moves even more closely, searching for clues about what is likely to happen to them and what they can do about it. The threats that arise in tough times are also more likely to be real than imagined, and to hit with greater frequency. Everyone involved is only human, with the usual foibles, quirks, and blind spots. The equipment remains the same, and it’s being put to an unusually hard test.
How can well-intentioned bosses avoid the toxic tandem? By mindfully taking attention from themselves in order to give it to their people’s challenges and worries. Bosses who do so will find that in stressful times people have an acute—and often unmet—need for four remedies: predictability, understanding, control, and compassion. My mentor Robert Kahn and I outlined the first three in a 1987 paper that was inspired by the great and lousy bosses we had observed during a deep recession in the midwestern United States. Some years later my colleague Jeffrey Pfeffer helped me recognize the fourth as a distinct and equally crucial antidote to organizational stress.
Making the Best of a Bad Situation (Located at the end of this article)

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