5 questions to find the best place to be during a prolonged recession

Where is this recession going?

I’ve spent some time following economic information about the recession and I think there is a fair chance that it will be L shaped.  I think the financial shock has been so bad that it is not good enough to wait.  I think the correct analogy is that we have had an earthquake, the house has cracked, and we would be smart to attend to the foundations.  In fact, why not take advantage to ‘build a better’ house were we have a more comfortable, more sociable and more exciting life.

I think that is the project politicians should be attending to, and I think we should too.  The sooner we identify the kind of “house” we want to live in, the sooner they can get on with organizing it!

Where do we find exciting opportunities during a prolonged recession?

As a psychologist, I listen out for the way people describe things. I look to the structure of their statements to identify what really excites them, what is going somewhere and where there is room for other people.

#1  Does the person describe action?

Do I know who is doing what, when, where and how?

#2  Is this a project that other people can join?

Do I know when and where other people can join the party?  Is the description an invitation to me and others?

#3  Is the person responsive when other people chip in?

Is the person looking for responses and did they allow time to reply to people?  Did they expect people to want to join them?

#4  Is the person curious about other people?

Does the person respond to inquiries and suggestions with requests for more information or elaboration?  Do they believe that other people can add value to their project?

#5  Through the entire conversation, does the person keep their eye on their goal?

While the person is responding to inquiries and following up, do they maintain their momentum and movement toward their goal?

Here’s my little acronym: AIRINGOAL

Action

Invitation

Responsive

Involvement

Goal

5 questions to tell whether a businesses is going somewhere

These are the 5 questions I ask to tell the difference between a business that may look thriving, and may go the same way as banks and newspapers, from business that will thrive despite the profession.

Once we have found a business that is vital and exciting, then we can ask more detailed questions about our role within it.  More on that tomorrow!

Little known secrets about what a work and organizational psychologist will do for you in a recession

My job is to help you find forward momentum

I’m a psychologist. What this means, in short, is that you come to see me when you feel frustrated and it is my job to help you find a way forward.

Clinical psychology, social workers, lawyers & doctors

For some people getting out of a bad situation is complicated.  Quite often they are in extremely difficult circumstances and they need social workers, doctors, lawyers, etc. to help them solve practical problems.

They may also have lived in difficult circumstances for so long that they no longer recognize easy circumstances.  Helping them unravel their view of life and live an easier life is the work of clinical psychologists.

Work & organizational psychologists

Most people who come to see me are not in a bad situation.  They are at one of the normal turning points in life where they have to make a decision and they do not have sufficient information.  These turning points are often frustrating and scary, but they are essentially about questions like which organization should I join?  Or, how do I improve my status and my income?  Psychologists like me work less like clinical psychologists, who work with what is in your head, more like social workers, doctors and lawyers.  We help you understand and manage the external world, and in particular the world of organizations and work.

Indeed, we are quite often work for organizations rather than individuals and when we do, we are architects of systems.  We design selection systems.  We design disciplinary codes.  We design bonus systems.  HR systems are just formalized ways of making a lot of personal decisions about what we are doing and where we are going.  When we design the systems well, we give people an easy framework to make their own decisions well.  And we also strengthen the organization, by providing a place where we live and work comfortably and easily.

Work & organizational psychologists ask a lot of questions about work & business

To design good systems, we need to know a lot about jobs and business.  Of course, we don’t know as much as the people who run the business and who have worked in it all their lives.  Businesses and technologies change fast too.  So we are less in the business of knowing, and more in the business of asking questions.

Learning about the financial crisis

I started writing this post this morning after I read a post from the redoubtable Alice Cook, who provides a graph showing that financial debt has grown disproportionately to consumer and corporate debt in the UK.  I knew that generally but didn’t have a graph at my finger tips.  So thank you.  I like to have data stored away neatly.

Personal action during the financial crisis

I am amazed, though, that anyone is amazed by these figures.  Like many people, I feel that the managerial classes in the UK have a lot to answer for.  They should have known these figures intimately and acted accordingly.

The trouble is that blaming others is pretty useless as a psychological technique.  Professionals & business leaders may be to blame.  We might be right to hold them in contempt.  And personally, I wouldn’t feel unhappy if they were prosecuted.  But blaming others doesn’t help us feel better, and more importantly, it doesn’t help use get things right.  So I’ll leave that to others.

As a psychologist, what I have to say is this.

Until we are all a lot better informed, we will simply lurch from one crisis to another

Listed below are the bare bones of an information system that I am used to having at my disposal.

  • Trends in our industry
  • Current economic figures supplied monthly by our bank
  • People around me who read the figures
  • Key figures pertaining to our industry
  • Data on databases so that computer savvy people (including youngsters) can play with data and ask questions
  • Key figures that show the strength and resilience of our business
  • Key figures readily available so computer savvy people can play with them and ask questions

It is true I have not seen this information being made freely available to employees since I have arrived in the UK but I’ve lived elsewhere where a key player in the provision of information to people in business has been, ironically, British-listed banks.

If we want to get out of the biggest mess since the great Depression, we are going to have to do something. And to do something, we have to begin.  The first steps I will tell you, being a psychologist, is to ask questions.

Some easy no-cost first steps that individuals and small business owners should take

You have a computer and internet?  So let’s go.  If you haven’t already done it, it’s time to set up your own economic intelligence system.

FIVE steps will do it.  Set up folders on your email, feeds reader, bookmarkers and hard drive,  and a page on your blog.

1. Google Alerts.  Set up Google Alerts for your industry.

I have alerts for UK jobs and UK GDP and use a ‘rule’ to send them straight to my “intelligence” folder in email.  I read them once a week or when I need a break from other tasks.

2.  As you find useful blogs, subscribe in your feeds reader.

I scan these at my leisure and make a point of reading The Economist on Thursday evenings.

3. Bookmark articles you might want to come back to.

One big folder works better than many little ones.  Bookmarks saves you Google-time when you want to re-call something.

4.  Save useful graphs, data and pictures on your hard drive for the presentation you will make later!

5. Blog from time to time to organize your thoughts.

Then make an index of useful posts on a separate page where your readers can find all your writings on the future of your industry and local economy.

So will being economically-savvy help?

Keeping an eye on the economy does not stop other people from being foolish, of course.  And it can also make you feel panicky when you see a trend that no one else seems to care about.

I find that understanding the economy is like knowing the motorway ahead is congested.  I have created choice for myself.  I can keep driving and join the throngs inching along and losing their tempers.  Or I can pull off, and take a longer route through the back roads.

Neither may be a great outcome and it is also possible to put far too much effort into deciding the best alternative.  But I prefer a leisurely drive down the back roads enjoying the country view than boiling with frustration on an ugly motorway.

And I quite happy to leave behind badly run organizations for a business venture that is smaller and more likely to be here tomorrow.

Follow the good money

If you haven’t already done so, begin.  Spend a few hours a week following the economic data.  It gets easier.

And if we all do it, we won’t be routed by unscrupulous managers, at least for a while.

Tip 3: find your future now not after the recession

Male and female ostriches "dancing".
Image via Wikipedia

Don’t ask who will be employed now

Today I commented on Jon Ingram‘s post about the way HR managers are responding to the recession and remarked that we should not be like the proverbial ostrich – head in the HR sand, butt in the breeze, where it is likely to be shot off!

Ostriches can run really fast (I’ve ridden one). A kick from them will also de-gut you as effectively as a kick from a giraffe.

So why don’t they run or attack, which they sometimes do?

Well, partly, they are none to bright (easily dazzled and then captured by reflecting the sun off your watch into their eyes).

But they are hoping that if they are quiet, that they will be safe.

So I am not going to be quiet.  It does not make me safe.

But I’ll also be kind, and tell you why I am blathering on about the wild animals of southern Africa.

Is the knowledge I acquired in southern Africa of use here?  Well, some is and some isn’t.

The point is that the competencies of yesterday are not necessarily valuable tomorrow.

We must distinguish what of yesterday we can take forward to the future.

We can respect the rest.  We can reminisce about it. But some belongs to the past and will not contribute to the business models of tomorrow.

Don’t bury your head in employment sand!

The questions we have to ask, and should ask each year in our strategy review are:

  • What competencies is this business or my career based?
  • How are these going to change? Incrementally, or suddenly and discontinuously requiring radical back-to-school training?

And in a bad downturn, we should also ask:

  • Can I use the slow time of the downturn to re-train and get some early experience in these new technologies?

Strategies for employers and employees

Employers should be actively building their team around the technologies of tomorrow.

Employees who have switched-off employers should be networking hard to find and build the team that is coalescing around the markets and technologies of the future.

Ask who will be employed in the future?

Here is a simple procedure

1  Grab an old shoe box

  • For one month, on an A5 envelope, every day write down one url to the future of your field with some notes about why you think it is important.  Date it!
  • For one month, on an A6 envelope, write down the contact details of a person who seems to be heading towards the right future and the nature of your contact with them.  Date it!
  • On the back of some other suitable scrap, jot down a daily diary of “what were the main events of today and WHY DID IT GO SO WELL”.  Keep your rough-and-ready diary in the box.
  • Print out a calendar.  Mark off each day and “don’t break the chain”.  Get the creative thinking charged up and humming.

2  At the end of the month, review and repeat

  • But this time discard one of the A5 and A6 envelopes as you add a new pair each day.
  • Keep the rough-and-ready diary going and remember to end by asking the question “WHY DID THE DAY GO SO WELL?”
  • And remember “don’t break the chain”.  Do this exercise daily however roughly.

You’ll be in the future before me!

Now, you’ll be in the future before me, so let me know how it goes. I’m particularly interested in how many months it takes you.  My guess is three at the outside.

And when you’ve done this,  we’ll “make a plan” to come back to rescue the ostriches!  We’ll have a figured out a role for them by then.

Right now, lets go out,  scout the future and be there when it happens!

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From anger to effective action

Anger: Stage Two of the Banking Crisis

Today, senior bankers fronted up to a Select Committee to make their apologies.  Shortly afterward, BBC ran a chat show and asked the public whether apologies were enough.  The public had a lot to say and the BBC presenter was clearly testing the depth of our anger.

Anger is Stage Two in the FIVE stage process of receiving bad news: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

So what does acceptance look like and how do we get there?

David Whyte, corporate poet, tells a good story that helps us understand the beginning and end of the five stage process, what we have to do to move from start to finish,  and why it is so difficult to take the first steps.

Whyte was trekking in Nepal.  He had left his friends and came, alone, on a ravine with a rope bridge in poor state of repair.  He was horrified.  It was too dangerous to use the bridge and too late to turn back and rejoin his companions.

So many situations are similar. We are stuck. It is too dangerous to do what we want to do and we cannot immediately see a way out of our predicament.  We are overcome by a mix of frustration, anxiety, shame and fear, and are in Stage One and Stage Two.  We are ‘all emotion’, and reasonably so.  After all, we are in trouble.

But in that funk, we cannot think clearly and cannot find a way out of our dilemma.

Tomorrow, I’ll break the situation into psychological terms and point out what we have to do if we are ever to move on.

Come with me!

Why some people stay cheerful in spite of the recession

Psychology of loss and gain

Economists who study behavior will tell you that we value something we lose, much more, than we value something we gain.

This is a pertinent emotion during a recession.   Most of us will lose something.  We may not get the  increase in salary we worked so hard for, or we might make less profit.  We might suffer a large loss, such as our job, or our business.  Some of our possessions may get repossessed.  We could even lose our houses that we saved and skimped and spent many weekends working on.  What chumps we will feel!

Loss is devasting, and distracts us from possibility.

Tom Peters today passed on a fabulous anecdote about Kurt Vonnegut,  Joseph Heller and a hedgefund manager.

“At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, ‘Yes, but I have something he will never have … enough.'”

Amen!
And thank you, John Bogle!
(And Judith Ellis.)

Coping with loss

It’s really difficult not to focus on loss when it happens.  Indeed, we shouldn’t move on too soon.  Grieving has its place.

I find the advice from the 5 stages of group formation useful: forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning.   The leader’s task during ‘adjourning’ is to help an individual break their tie with the group, and to proceed back into the world quite happily as an individual.

Applying that advice to the horrible events that happen in recessions, we have three broad steps.  We need

  • Signal that change is going to happen in sufficient time
  • Plan a rite of passage (like a graduation ceremony)
  • Get people visualizing life without the group (or house or whatever).

No, that’s not quite right.  To talk about ‘life without’ brings our attention back to what we have lost.

Endpoint

We need to talk about our story, all the good times we have had, and gradually get to the point that we see jobs, companies, businesses, not as the end in themselves – just as ENOUGH.  They are there to help us get what we want.

What do we want?  And how are those projects going!  Incredibly hard to focus on those things when confronted with loss – the economists tell us so!

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.

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5 tips from the recession guru!

Self-appointed recession guru

Do I dare call myself a recession guru?  Why not?  I spent most of life working in a regional centre given to trouble and strife!  If we weren’t rapidly readjusting to major political turmoil, we were adjusting to the effects of drought on agriculture which was our primary economy.  In a good year, the economy expanded 3%.  When the rains didn’t come, we went back 3%.

  • We got very good at scenario planning and not over-reacting.  We were brought up on the phrase: anyone can make money when the markets are going up.  A business person plans for the up and the down.
  • We stopped blaming people.  If weather is the problem, then plan for it!
  • We learned about the economy.  As an HR consultant, my business wasn’t hit in the year the economy went down.  It would feel the pain 2-3 cycles later.  Simply, psychologists don’t work with farmers very  much.  We work with people who supply the farmers and people who supply the suppliers.  It takes a little time for the effects to work through the levels.
  • We learned what the numbers meant.  For the record, a downturn of 7% will have accountants hyperventilating.  Quite often their firms are technically bankrupt and they should cease trading – but if every one is in the same boat, you breath fast and trade through!  Equally I can tell you with confidence that you can survive 100% inflation quite well. At 300% expect people to get seriously ill.  Relax.  We aren’t there yet!
  • And above all we learned to focus.  We learned to sack customers who didn’t pay on time!  It is disconcerting to shrink your revenue, grow your profit and play more golf.  But that is how it works!

Time management

BNET published a good article today on time management.  The centre piece of the article is the busy, busy person who is racing around being busy being busy.

Since I have come to live in the UK, I have been stunned by poor time management.  I am amazed by someone who delegates his time management to a subordinate (usually blokes delegating to gals?).   Beyond a junior levels of management, our tasks aren’t serial, they are interrelated.

Let me give you an example:  I email you asking to discuss something.  You email back to say yes and speak to your secretary.  I write to her (usually).  She consults you (or doesn’t).  She writes back with some questions about time.  I write back.  She confirms.

7 emails to do something you had the power to do in your first reply.  When I confirmed, that would be 3 emails.

The pre-email rule is that any piece of paper should come across your desk once and once only.  You should have been sufficiently clear about your priorities to make a decision whether or not the meeting with me was important to you and how our meeting would move your major project forward.

All else is dross.

HR and the recession

As HR practitioners, we have a major role in a recession:

  • Make sure we are calm ourselves.  Get the HR team taking exercise, working reasonable hours and secure about their own prospects.
  • Back up the people like accountants who are on the front line.  Spend time with them to make sure they are taking exercise, working reasonable hours and calm about their own prospects!
  • Get the conversations about the economy and the company humming.  Make sure managers understand the economy and talk to staff (I’ve heard of Royal Bank of Scotland managers unable to discuss credit derivatives with their staff – don’t be like that please!).  Resource the conversation and support it with social media.
  • Make sure people understand what factors the business must focus on to succeed and keep them focused!

Above all of course, we should be focused.

“Know your Number 1 priority. If you achieved nothing else in the next 12 months, what single achievement would most contribute to the success of your organisation?”

Can we answer this question ourselves?  How many people in the organization could state the No 1 priority for

  • the organization
  • their unit
  • their boss
  • themselves
  • each of their colleagues
  • their subordinates

Remember, any one can do business in good times.  It is the bad times that test our credentials.

ReadWriteWeb has come alive . . .

. . . with great and interesting posts every day.

Today Alex wrote on the recession, which is worrying lots of people. I’m a Zimbo so I am going, ahh! this ain’t so hard. Forgive me. This is what I have to say.

1. I have never worked with a lazy person, ever.

I have worked with people who were thoroughly disengaged and very unhappy. I have worked with people who I thought were misdirected (yes I thought, they didn’t).

People like working. The great trick is integrating people. And I will be the first to say that can be hard. I always take the view that we hired someone because they are good. If we are falling out, the responsibility is mutual and we should help the person (typically with the least power) move on to a better place – where they are highly valued, better paid, etc. And if we are so far down the road of conflict we can’t see the good anymore, we should back off and let someone else manage the relationship. I want to kiss goodbye (with relief as right now we are on a path to hating each other) and recover our friendship in due course. We both mismanaged our relationship. It is time for us to recover and make good.

2. I don’t want to work in a place where some pigs are more equal than others . . .

I’m a conventional HR-based psychologist. I do selection – you know those awful tests and reports telling you who you are. I can run up a comp-and-benefit scheme explaining who gets more money and why. I predict labor demand within organizations and match supply (to make sure we don’t suffer too much when you leave). I run the hello and goodbye programs. And I bollock anyone who gets into a disciplinary scenario because of the paper work they make for us all.

But I don’t want to work in a place where one person is more important than anyone else.

Everyone is important otherwise why did we hire them? Floors are not cleaned as a luxury. Clean floors are essential to the smooth running of our business, etc. etc.

I hate the idea that we look after the top 10% of people.  Why do I select people, then, I hear you say? Because we have the technology to identify the matches that will never work – the extreme cases. Let’s make ourselves useful, folks. I am also happy when my deli refuses to sell me something because what I intend to do with their food is just plain horrible. There is nothing wrong with someone who knows, leaning over to someone who doesn’t, and saying, if you want to achieve X, do it like Y.  What a wonderful expression of goodwill. I am saved disappointment and I feel great that someone cared enough to tell me.

3. Can organizations be egalitarian? Don’t we need leaders?

I discovered Barbara Sliter’s blog Creatorship – courtesy of Galba Bright. Thank you so much.

I have stopped believing in leadership. I believe we thrust up people to represent us. It is a dynamic process, as we are seeing the States right now. The answer is not given, and the person who most respects the dynamic will win, by definition.

On a daily basis, in my conventional role as a work psychologist, leadership is shared. I deliver data, collected professionally and organized to inform action in the circumstances we are in. Our understanding of the situation evolves during discussions, as mine does. And “leadership” shifts with the part of the situation we are considering. The “leader”, be it the senior line manager present, or any one else, leads by representing our collective and considered view to us and to others.

Sometimes the senior line person is so much more experienced than the rest of us, they add an overview we all recognize immediately as bringing us together. Mostly, they are sufficiently experienced, in our line of work and in leadership roles (they probably started practicing at pre-school!) and recognize when we are reaching agreement which they sum up effectively so that we can move forward with full confidence in each other.

Often, they find the group view is very much at odds with their own, but they represent our view effectively anyway. They value their people. We are on the team for a reason. Together we will make good decisions. We won’t always be right. And sometimes we will be right, but won’t win.

But we will put our best foot forward! They know that.

Barbara Sliter puts this so much better than I do. People who haven’t had the privilege of working in professional, collegial settings are ready. Ready to co-create meaning at work.

What I can do, is add the stories and the robust HR technologies for the pay systems, etc. I’ve seen places where the “least senior” person chairs the meeting. It works. And why not? They will be the least opinionated after all!

4. Recessions offer opportunity too.

Go back to Zimbabwe I hear you say. Maybe I will. I haven’t heard that for a while – at least 6 months. I must be keeping good company.

What counts in life is finding opportunity in what looks like a negative space. A 3% downturn is not trouble, believe me! But it is disconcerting. The firms that sit down, and openly talk about what is opening up for them, will thrive.

To refer to the American elections again, I deliberately engaged with Obama-skeptics to find out their objections. They don’t want universal health insurance, presumably because it may cost them a little. My scampering mind screams OPPORTUNITY! Where is Melissa Clark-Reynolds? I don’t know if you are Kiwi, Alex, but Richard will know whom I mean.

Whomever asks the best questions under frustration wins! I’ve also just found Galba Bright’s blog. He has posted today a great heuristic for managing meetings and particularly tricky meetings. I am going to look at that more closely today.

Thanks, Alex. I liked your post. It is closer to the egalitarian world I like (provided I am in charge of course!). I like working with knowledge workers. And BTW, Gen Y really get this. I had a conversation late last night with a colleague’s son who had been deputed by his father to help me with a website. At one point the young man said to me: tell me a little more about your skill set so I know what you will be contributing. Yep, indeed. They hold their own!