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Your Next Move: Thriving and Managing in Limbo

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Guest Author Blog: Leading in Limbo by Michael D. Watkins author of YOUR NEXT MOVE: The Leader’s Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions

Sometimes the toughest transitions are the ones that you know are coming, but haven't quite arrived.

Think of the situation facing the employees of a company whose operations are in the process of being sold to a competitor. The logic behind the acquisition is “synergy;” the acquirer wants the acquiree’s European and developing markets businesses to complement their strength in the U.S.. This more than likely means that most of the employees in the acquired company’s U.S. operations will lose their jobs.

Guest Author Blog
Guest Author Blog

But it’s not a certainty that they will, and that’s the rub. While some may opt for an immediate exit, many will hang on to see what happens. So for a period of time ranging from weeks to months they will live in limbo, waiting to see what happens, wondering if some or any will survive.

It’s really difficult to motivate people in such situations. In fact, the impact on employee morale is rapidly felt. The anticipation of seismic changes, coupled with uncertainty about what form they would take, yields a pernicious feedback loop in which:

  • Anxiety increases.
  • People feel disoriented and experience self-doubt.
  • Hunkering down in a defensive crouch takes hold.
  • Everyone tries to protect what they have to justify being retained.
  • Information gets hoarded and turf battles erupt.
  • People wonder if anything is worth doing.
  • Some begin to “check out”
  • Morale declines and work on key initiatives slows.
  • Quality and productivity suffers.
  • Anxiety increases, and so on.

Leaders in these organizations found themselves caught in an emotional vice. Even as they tried to put on a brave face to deal with distress in their teams, they had to cope with the potential impacts on their own lives and livelihoods. Even as they tried to set goals and motivate people to attain them, their own morale deteriorated. Even as they tried to maintain hope that they had a future with their organizations, their thoughts turned to resumes and recruiters.

Times of transition oftentimes bring out the very worst in people. So how can leaders manage their people during the potentially crippling period of uncertainty when everyone knows change is coming but it has not yet arrived?

While the situation may be very difficult, and there are no magic bullets, there are a few things that can help:

Be a rumor killer. Things are never as bad as first feared, nor as good as first hoped. You have to help separate the wheat from the chaff. If a rumor surfaces, ask where it comes from until you know the source. If your people are making unfounded assumptions – optimistic or pessimistic – help them see the ladder of inference more clearly.

Be an optimistic realist. Focus your people on what really is and is not likely to change. Challenge them to find (realistic) ways of making lemonade out of lemons. But don’t sugar-coat the situation or people will lose faith in you. If all else fails, focus people on getting ready to find new roles.

Temper the urge to over-react. Transition brings out the manic-depressive in many people. They are up, they are down, they are all around. It’s your job to stay calm and to try to talk people off the ledge.

Figure out what is still worth doing. Regardless of how bad things look, there still have to be battles worth fighting, even if it is just to get a personal sense of closure and to give people something to put on their resumes. So figure out what those worth-winning battles are and focus your people on them.

Shorten the time horizon. While many lament that businesses have too much short-term orientation, this is a time when it makes sense to focus on the short term. What are we going to do in the next 30, 60 and 90 days?

The key through all of this is to try to give your people some sense that they still have control over their destinies. It’s a thin reed, but definitely better than twisting in the wind.

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Michael Watkins
Michael Watkins

Michael D. Watkins is the author of YOUR NEXT MOVE: The Leader’s Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions.

Michael is also the cofounder of Genesis Advisors, a Newton, Massachusetts-based leadership development firm specializing in transition acceleration programs and coaching.

His previous books include The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels and The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at All Levels, all from Harvard Business Press.

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