Overcoming Survivors’ Guilt With EQ

By Nick Tasler, M.S.

Like nearly everyone in the working world, Mary Peterson, CEO of Retail Jewelers Organization (RJO), has come to expect less engagement over the past year from the more than 800 independent jewelers she works with. Fear of the stalled economy continues to keep potential shoppers at bay, which means retailers across the country—from giants like Best Buy and Home Depot all the way down to locally owned stores—are being forced to whittle down their workforces again in the first month of 2009.

It’s not just the unemployed who are paying the price. Job losses are taking a serious toll on the layoff survivors and the organizations they still work for. A recent Accenture study found that 66 percent of managers believe that economic concerns are distracting employees and hampering productivity. After the last big recession in the early 1990s, organizational psychologists confirmed what managers always suspected—layoff survivors are less engaged, less productive and absent more often than before they saw the ax dropped on their work pals.

Survivors’ guilt describes the syndrome infecting “the lucky ones” who escape layoffs when friends and peers don’t, as well as the managers who served as executioners of job cuts. Uncomfortable questions like why them and not me? burden survivors. They are supposed to feel “lucky to still have a job,” friends and family are quick to remind them, which only heaps on the guilt at the thought of colleagues who are not so lucky. Ironically, these pangs of remorse and murmurs of self-loathing don’t make them work harder or cherish their jobs more. Guilt diminishes their performance and causes them to mentally retract from their duties.

So when Mary Peterson began preparing for RJO’s 2009 seminar, which was held in San Antonio last week, she expected to see that disengagement quantified by, “lower attendance due to the economy and emotional state of many of our retailers.” But Peterson was wrong. “Instead,” she says “we had above average attendance . . . because of the need of our retailers to feel supported and revitalized by one another.” Peterson’s observation underscores the point that all people—even über-independent small- business owners—need social support to remain engaged and productive. While it might be clear to managers across the globe that disengagement is a productivity problem, few understand that emotional support is the cure.

How To Support Survivors

With co-workers and friends—an employee’s typical support network—coming and going daily, managers must fill the void of emotional support for their employees, but many simply don’t know how. Though effectively addressing other people’s emotions isn’t rocket science, it is not natural or comfortable for many managers. I’ve talked with many managers over the years that have been taught that emotions are something to be avoided . . . especially at work.

One day it may become second nature for managers to read employees’ emotions in order to be supportive and inspiring even during turbulent times. That day isn’t here. While it is true that some business schools around the country are now incorporating emotional intelligence (EQ) skill development into their curriculum, millions of managers still have never been taught how to deal with the emotional elements of management. Even though most managers are enlightened enough to reject the outdated notion that emotions are to be avoided, they may lack the skills to provide adequate emotional support.

The two most common mistakes managers make are:

  • They convince themselves that they don’t have time to “coddle” employees, and they reason that their employees are adults and should be able to cope with their own “issues.”
  • They unconsciously tune out, or flat-out ignore, employees’ emotions. By acknowledging other people’s emotions, they know they run a serious risk of striking up an uncomfortable conversation.

Whatever the excuse, the outcome is the same— disengaged and unproductive employees.

Even those managers who are comfortable dealing with others’ emotions find themselves facing a greater number of intense emotional issues than they are accustomed to seeing in their employees. For that reason, even the most emotionally intelligent managers could use a refresher course. Here’s how to whip those task managers into supportive leaders.

  1. Identify Specific Behaviors to Target for Development. Does one manager need help managing his or her own feelings of worry and discontent before he or she can be supportive to employees? Is another manager good at picking up on employees’ ups and downs, but not so good at addressing them? Not all managers have the same skills in the same areas. While all EQ skills are important, developing them takes time, and time is not a luxury most organizations have at the moment. Skill development needs to be targeted to the most critically needed skills so each manager can achieve noticeable progress right away.

    The best way to find out which skills a manager needs to work on is to survey that manager’s employees and peers. Find out from those who work closest with each manager which emotional intelligence skill area is most in need of a check-up. Armed with those results, a qualified coach or trainer can then zero in on the appropriate skills and immediately begin creating a more supportive and engaging leader.

  1. Enlist a Certified Professional. Helping managers provide support may require finding a qualified professional to guide them through the skill development process. That professional is probably closer than you think. In fact, it might be you. If you have experience with training or coaching, you can become certified in the Impact EQ Learning program, which gives you access to 16 hours of instructor-led emotional intelligence training that teaches managers how to recognize employees’ emotions and how to address them.

    The program is designed to be turn-key so you can use it immediately after becoming certified. It’s also adaptable to your specific needs. As leadership development expert and certified trainer at Kaiser Permanente, Molly Smith-Olsson remarked, “the curriculum is not only flexible and easy to use, but its methodology has—time and time again—been engaging, relevant and applicable for our leaders.”

  2. Regular Follow-up. Government stimulus packages notwithstanding, nearly all economists agree that we’re in for a long economic winter. Surviving it requires overcoming emotional barriers to productivity as soon as possible. Developing your managers’ skills so they can break through these barriers in their teams is both vital and urgent. The problem is that real behavior change takes time, which makes the challenge that much greater for trainers. I can’t offer a simple solution to this reality, but I can promise you that diligent follow-up at regular intervals will speed up the learning process. With constructive and attentive guidance from a certified professional, managers (and employees) can start seeing results within weeks or even days. An online goal-tracking system is an excellent way for a trainer or coach to keep close tabs on multiple managers’ progress without anyone having to leave their desk. The coach works with the manager to set key goals, and then helps to identify a few easily applicable action steps to achieve that goal. From there, the coach or trainer can jump online at any time to leave a quick note for the manager or get an update on his or her progress.

It’s possible that the economy will turn around sooner than expected—perhaps even in just a few months. But even so, the psychological damage to employees right now will leave them throbbing with an emotional hangover for some time to come—the guilt won’t just disappear when job losses do. Providing the necessary emotional support now will not only help survival, but will also poise organizations for a speedy recovery when brighter days come.

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