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Mutiny in the cubicles

How to quell a staff rebellion

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Hiring,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers

Browse the latest business books and you’ll see dozens of titles on leadership. But these books hide the ugly truth—that part of being a leader is making unpopular decisions.

I know. I’ve been announcing cutbacks lately that have rattled our work force. I had to freeze hiring and scale back promised benefits. While I described these moves as a temporary response to the economic downturn, that doesn’t placate anyone. They want my head.

Now I’ve never been the most patient guy when it comes to hearing employees grumble about what they’re entitled to and why I’m the devil for not giving it to them. It bugs me when folks think “me, me, me” instead of considering the larger issues facing the corporation.

But I can’t get too defensive or clamp down too hard. I tried that once. I got tired of how employees would use their discontent as an excuse to take constant breaks and meet (on company time!) about whether to unionize or stage a walk-out or whatever. I’d tell them, “Be happy we’re not handing out pink slips.” That only made them madder.

Dump on me

Now I’m trying something new. I’m letting people spew venom in my face. I hold impromptu meetings and let them vent. If they say something patently stupid, I don’t correct them like I used to. I just let them work themselves into a tizzy and wait for them to calm down.

I’ve learned that if you show contempt, they’ll flip it right back at you. I once told a whiner, “Spend at least 10 percent of your day doing something productive. Is that too much to ask?” Of course, this merely fed his rebelliousness. I don’t say things like that anymore.

Instead, I’ve developed a dump-on-me philosophy. I let employees criticize me and the company. That seems to take the edge off. It’s hard for people to treat you as an enemy if you’re sympathizing with them.

Redirect their fury

But just because I listen like a saint doesn’t mean I can satisfy their demands. Lots of times I wind up nodding and saying, “We’re up against something that’s bigger than you or me,” or showing them our financials and asking, “What would you do, given these numbers?”

When you level with employees, it’s not as if they suddenly turn all happy. They stay upset. But at least you establish some trust.

One more thing: Even if you listen well, you still have to help them redirect their anger.

I like to help employees find another villain. I focus their fury on whipping our competitors. Or I might enlist them to help battle an Internet tax.

My advice: Join them in the trenches and fight together against an outside foe. That’s the best insurance against internal rebellion.

Each month, “Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 25-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $100 million information services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.

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