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Listen to worried workers

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

When times get tough, it’s tempting to retreat behind closed doors. But that’s hardly reassuring to your employees.

Beware of reacting to uncertain economic conditions by hunkering down and lowering your visibility at work. Unfortunately, that’s precisely how some managers behave when they are scared or unsure of the next wave of bad news.

Sure, it’s easier to avoid dealing with your staff’s anxiety. Because you can’t offer a rosy scenario to make everyone feel better, you conclude that it’s best to keep a low profile while you wait out these difficult months.

Yet burying your head in the sand fuels the rumor mill. As abandoned employees speculate about their future, some stars may quit. Others will stay put but perform poorly because they’re preoccupied with their job security.

“If you’re apprehensive, you can’t let everyone see that,” says Tom Stemberg, founder and former CEO of Staples. “Your people need to see you maintain an aura of confidence.”

Some managers hesitate to hear their employees’ concerns because they don’t want to encourage people to engage in aimless fretting. You might assume it’s unproductive to get everyone together to commiserate about 401(k) losses.

In fact, listening to such concerns helps you address misunderstandings and share ideas to cope. Even if you have nothing constructive to say, your willingness to hear what’s on your staff’s mind can lift their spirits and breed more open, honest communication.

Lessons Learned

At Staples, former CEO Tom Stemberg hosted staff meetings that unfolded in three stages. The firm’s founder began by updating everyone on the status of the overall business. Then he led a discussion on a specific topic such as store policy regarding returns. In the third part of the meeting, employees asked Stemberg anything they wanted (as long as they didn’t complain about their boss). He treated all questions seriously and provided straightforward answers.

“As a leader, you need to stand in front of people and let them share what’s on their mind,” says Stemberg, a managing general partner at Highland Capital Partners in Lexington, Mass.. That’s especially important in times like these if employees worry about their job or their financial security.


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