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Tag: recovery

3 questions to head-off burnouti

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 10:  A homeless man who ...
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Overtired and babbling like a three year old?

Have you every felt so tired that you know your performance is impaired and that you really should take a break?  I don’t mean go home at a reasonable time.  I mean take a very long holiday?

Of course many professions build breaks into their work cycles.  I remember reading the biography of the best published mathematician in the world.  He worked at Oxford and he took a holiday every vacation – 8 weeks on, 3 weeks off!  He thought 3 weeks was the minimum time on an active physical holiday to recharge.  During term time, he also went rock climbing every weekend from Saturday lunchtime to Sunday evening.  During the week, he got up early to work, as many creative people do, and found he had his best ideas on Monday.  If he had a good idea on Tuesday too, he took the rest of the week off!

Are you heading towards burnout?

Until today, I always thought burnout meant the feeling we get at the end of a work cycle – when we are really tired and need a break.  Or maybe, the feeling that we get when we didn’t get a natural break and we worked two terms back-to-back.

Today, I was lucky to meet psychologist, Jo Haworth (on the telephone).  Jo works out of Strixton about 10 miles north of where I live in Olney.  She is a clinical psychologist who works in the business sector. What she said about burnout amazed me.

Burnout before your eyes

Jo has clients who burnout spectacularly.  One day they find themselves staring at computer screen, maybe in a foreign country, and they have completely lost track of what they are doing on their task, in their career, and in their lives.  They find their way home and they realize they don’t know their neighbors.  They’ve lived in the corporate cocoon for so long, they don’t know how to use a washing machine!

I have found the same pattern with executives made redundant from leading companies.  One day they are “It”.  The next, in a stroke of a pen, they are jobless, and lifeless.  Their income is gone.  Their toys have gone.  Their status has gone.  The people who are hit worse have invested their life-and-soul in the company.  They belong to no clubs and have no life outside work.

Doing without burnout!

We can be amusing and concoct expressions like ‘from 9-6 my soul belongs to the company – but when I drive out that gate, my soul belongs to me’.   We can be serious and say leaders at work must be leaders in other spheres too – and check that our staff have a life.

To be practical, we need to take time out to monitor whether our work, or rather our employment, has a place in our lives.  Forget mincing expressions like work-life balance.  Do you have a life?  Can you answer that in the affirmative without the tell-tale language of a lie – some rapid blinking, some looking away, some touching of your mouth?  Can you walk away from you job tomorrow?  Or, is it your entire life?  When I ask you that simple question – do you have a life? – will your eyes shine or will they dull over?

3 basics for a good life

These are my suggestions.

At all times we should

  • be able to walk away and take a year off to do what we want to do
  • be able to support our partner if they want to take a year out and do what they want to do
  • have 3 alternative jobs lined up so we have enticing and exciting alternatives on a 360 degree horizon!

If you don’t have 2009 resolutions, let these be my gift to you.

It is quite extraordinary how people do live lives they want to live.  They aren’t selfish and they aren’t foolish.  I’ll wager people who ‘live a life they can call their own’ live, like corporate poet, David Whyte who in writing these words, do something of immense value for other people and are quite successful financially.

Some sales objections, hey?

I can’t do this during a recession, you say!  Of course, you can.  Deciding that employment will meet these criteria, even if you bring changes about slowly and incrementally, will encourage you to notice possibilities around you.  I don’t know what changes are possible, or which you will appreciate, but you do and the more you pay attention, the more you will see them.

Or you say, I can’t do this now because I have to work two jobs or spend 5 hours a day commuting on grubby trains in the UK.  Not easy I know. You have trouble remembering your own name under these conditions.  For you, I say, write on your mirror in bright red lipstick: I will find the life big enough for me to live.  Write on the front flap of your diary, “I will organize my affairs so I always have time and room in my life to explore, imagine, support others, and to move on to something more exciting and more adventurous”.  Then use the downtime while you commute to ponder these issues.  The ideas will come.  Believe me, they will come.  On the scale of living through chaos, I am likely to beat you hands-down!

So here’s to a life that is big enough to live!

Dr Srikumar Rao talking at Googletalk estimates no more than a year to reorganize your life without any abrupt moves.

Let me know how it goes?

And thanks to Jo Haworth for an instructive lesson.  I must stop confusing fatigue with burnout!

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4 fold plan to map your own future

Botrychium lunaria
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Take charge of your life, please!

I’ve just watched a Reuters slide show of people looking for work in the States, China and Japan.  Sometimes we have to look for work!

But to do it without having a larger plan is the most frightening and desperate thing we can ever do.

It is a mistake to define our life by the opportunities created by other people.  It would depress me.  It would depress anyone.  It will depress you.  It is such a bad idea.

Finding a job is like traveling abroad

A young friend of mine described choosing a career direction as being in a foreign country and asking people for directions.

Have you ever noticed that the locals in a foreign country don’t know where anything is?  It’s not surprising really.  They go to the same places every day.  They don’t know what is useful to a visitor or newcomer.

My young friend has made the gustiest decision he will ever have to make.  He has decided not to rush it.  He’s continuing with his student job while he works out what he really wants to do.

What I’ve suggested to him is that he pretends he is an adventurer in an uncharted place and draw the map as he goes.   So to extend the metaphor,  when he sees a mountain, put it down roughly.  When he sees a lake, add that to his picture.  And so on.

He’s contributed a pretty nifty metaphor that completes the other three I wrote about this week.  This is how they work together.

1  Define your core value (five minutes)

  • Scan a list of flowers and their symbolic meaning to capture your sense of the value you deliver.
  • I found btw that I want a red carnation for me (meaning I carry a torch for you) and lunaria for my company (meaning prosperity).  I don’t mean I just want my company to be prosperous.  I want that, of course.  I mean that the job of my company is to deliver prosperity to other people.
  • Which flower captures the value you deliver?

2  Resolve to do well by doing good (relax)

  • Be like my neighborhood restaurant in Olney.  Do what you think is right and do it for free.
  • Don’t be so focused that you only think of getting a job or how much money you can make out of other people.
  • Let people help you.  And you will find that people do.
  • People want to applaud you success.  Let them have have the pleasure!

3  Each day find 1 signpost and 1 person who is closer to where you want to be than you are now

(1 hour searching and 10 minutes recording)

  • Do a daily exercise finding a website representing activities that take you one step further and make contact with one more person who is closer to where you want to go than you are now.
  • Do this daily, and don’t break the chain!  Then add a rough diary of what you did during the day and WHY IT WENT SO WELL!
  • You’ll have 30 websites and people at the end of the month.  In month 2, each day also discard a website and person each as you find another pair.  (Or put them in another box.)
  • In this way, you’ll edge towards the place you want to be.
  • I don’t know how long it will take, but you’ll be surprised at how fast it goes.  My guess is 3 months.  You tell me when you’ve tried.

4  Draw your map (7 minutes)

  • And each day add to your map.
  • What is the landscape of your field and its future as you see it?
  • Keep adding features as you go.
  • And whatever you do, don’t try too hard.  Your map might mutate into a map of the underground or something like that.  Just don’t jump to defining answers.  Doodle!  We want your creative juices flowing freely.

Who should do this?

The recession is so severe, everyone should be doing this.  If you are in a good place right now and it looks secure, then sure, do it intermittently.  Jot down websites and people intermittently and review the box once a month.

For everyone else, I would say this exercise has fairly high priority.  The bankers say they didn’t know what they were doing.  The government says it is uncharted waters – meaning, they have no map.

We are all in a strange place asking the locals for directions.  Best to start drawing the map!

And don’t aim to come out with a job that is defined by others.  Define your own future.  Let other people stand in your queue!

Is this possible?

Of course it is.  How do jobs get made?  They get made by people like me and you.  But you know, they followed their dreams.

Will we always be an employer?  No.  Sometimes we will choose to work for others because hitching a ride on their wagon, so to speak, makes sense.

But we don’t want to feel desperate.  If that is what you feel.  Do this exercise.  You will feel better very rapidly, I promise.

If you are not feeling desperate, begin now and gather around you the people you need on your journey.  They will be grateful.  They want company too.

Talk to me!

And let me know how you get on.  I like company too.

Thanks to my young friend who helped me finish this series.  I appreciate his help – again.  Actually we are friends, despite the difference in our years, because he has helped me before.  As now, he didn’t set out to do anything in particular.  But he added value to my life.

That’s how it works, isn’t it?  We journey part of the way with other people and we help carve out a future together that we believe is worth having.

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3 steps when goals seem out of our reach

I think back to the most frustrating times of my life and I felt exactly like David Whyte standing in front of a ravine, desperate to be the other side and with palpitations because it seems impossible.

Whenever we feel frightened it helps to visualize the ravine.  And draw the ravine on a piece of paper.

  1. What is on the other side that we want so deeply?
  2. What is the gap and the frayed rope bridge that seems too dangerous to use?
  3. And where are we now?

I want to be clear: when we are really frightened, we forget to do this.  And we chide ourselves for forgetting!  But we shouldn’t – we are anxious because our dream is important!

When we remember, our task is to imagine the ravine and draw, or jot down, our answers to all 3 questions.

Then we concentrate on question 3 and write down everything we can think about where we are now.  We might want to concentrate on the other two questions.  That is understandable but we should write down point after point about HERE & NOW.  Set a goal – write 1, then write 2 more, then write 2 more, until we are on a roll.

Lastly we underline the parts that work well. This is important.  We go through our list of HERE & NOW and underline what works well.

And if you don’t think of something that will move you forward, write to me and complain!

But I guess you will write to me to say how well this method works.

Come with me!

  • Think of your biggest dream that you have put aside to attend to your obligations or because you think you have to be cautious during the recession.
  • Feel your fear and honor it!  You only feel fear because this goal is important to you.
  • Then draw the diagram and remember to write down in detail where are now  Finally, underline what works well.

Are you feeling better?  Can you see a way forward?

Prepare for a winning week!

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Overcome your fear in 3 steps

There was David Whyte, on his own, standing at the edge of a ravine in Nepal.  He knew he wanted to be at the other side but the rope bridge was in a bad state of disrepair.  He couldn’t go on and he couldn’t go back as his friends had taken another path.  He was terrified.  What should he do?

Situations which frighten the life out of us often have THREE parts.

  • A goal that feels distant and unreachable – Whyte knew he wanted to be the other side of the ravine.
  • A gap between where we are now and where we want to be that seems impossible to close – the rope bridge was in a perilous condition.
  • And where we are now – which in our funk we have forgotten about completely.

The gap between where we are now and where we want to be is sickening.  We cannot see how we can get across and we are awash with strong and negative emotions. In this state, we can think of little else.

Now I will tell you that if you are experiencing a deep, debilitating funk every 6-8 weeks, you are not living!

When was the last time that you felt so nervous you almost threw up?

Come with me!

Think of when you last felt that something you wanted was unreachable.   Or think of something you presently feel is unreachable.

Then draw the ravine.  What was on the other side that you wanted deeply, what is the gap and the frayed rope bridge, and where are you now?

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you the secret of dealing the overpowering emotion and finding ways out of seemingly impossible situations.

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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!

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First step to setting my goals for the recession

manchester airport
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The recession is like a plane journey

When I lived in New Zealand, I flew a lot.  Thirty-six hour journeys in the main.  After a while, it was possible to get it down to a fine art.  Everything was just where I needed it.  I knew the oddities of the airports en route, and the vagaries of a chain of flights through countries with their own distinctive cultures.

I walked into an aircraft, put my hand-luggage overhead, and sat down with exactly what I needed – book, hard case to protect my glasses, pen and passport if I anticipated filling in forms before we touched down.

And then someone sat down next to me and started bobbing up-and-down. First, they had forgotten this. Then they had forgotten that!  My heart would sink!

What can psychologists tell us about being cool, calm and collected?

Why is that some people cannot get their act together?  Why are others cool, calm, collected, and seemingly in control of every thing going on around them?

Action theory

Yesterday I listed three types of initiative described by Michael Frese of Giessen University.

Self-starters are quick to action and equally quick to figure out what works and what doesn’t. In an aircraft, they get their junk into an overhead locker quickly, clear the aisle, help other people, hold up no one, yet are comfortable and ready to go.

Proactive people think ahead.  They have what they need in the outer pockets of their hand luggage.  They are dressed for a wide range of cabin temperatures and take off a jacket or put on one without a fuss.  They know that alcohol will worsen the cabin-induced dehydration and they claim all the water they can see.

Persistent people are amazingly flexible.  They know that they are not in control and ‘read’ what is happening around them, less to join in, and more to help everyone else get settled.  They know they can get back to enjoying a quiet and peaceful flight when every one else is settled.

Can we be self-starting, proactive and persistent all at once?

Of course, we would like to be!  We all like to be in control, calm and dignified!  But can we be prompt to act, yet planful?  Can we be flexible, yet persistent?

The three styles of initiative are brought together with three key psychological concepts: goals, plans and feedback.

Goals are amazing.  When we decide what we really want to do, we become self-starters.   We jump into tasks and nothing can stop us.  Oddly everything becomes very easy too – or as we say, ‘the universe conspires to help us’!

Plans allow us to anticipate the various ways something can pan out.  So we learn to allow for other people’s needs and we budget a little time and energy to help them out.

Feedback tells us if we are on track.  If we have a realistic mental model of what will unfold, we can say to ourselves – my long term goal is to have a restful flight and my short term goal is to help my neighours get settled.  Then we can follow both plans simultaneously.

German and American psychology

The big difference between German and American psychology is the recognition of these three concepts.  American psychologists talk a lot about goals and to a lesser degree about feedback.  Germans place a lot more emphasis on plans.

We are able to make plans when we understand how the world works.  Hence, education is important.   So too is experience.  So is a good attitude to errors.  An error simply alerts us to the possibility that something needs to be understood.

For example, on several occasions as I stood exhausted and bleary-eyed in Australian passport queues, something went wrong with their computers and it took over an hour and a manager to sort it out.  The third time it happened, I stepped round the counter and watched how they resolved the problem.  To cut a long story short, it seemed that the clerk had entered the country code for my passport incorrectly.  I could see that this would happen again.  Thereafter, my passport proudly carried yellow stickies with the message “The code for xxxxx is yy!”  Understanding the objective world and the priorities of others is so important to maintaining our own bearings.

When I understand the “noise and whip of the whirlwind”, I find it so much easier to deal with the “noise and whip”, or to use another metaphor, to give unto Ceasar.  Dealing with distractions, interruptions and errors may take a little time, but I don’t muddle them up with a commentary on what I am doing.  I deal with the distractions on their own terms, and register as feedback solely whether or not I am free to pursue my own goals!

When I am aware of what is going on around me and I have dealt with the odd things that come up, then at last I can act more like a self-starter – pursuing goals, doing what needs to be done immediately, being more mindful, and finding flow.

All three – goals, plans and feedback – work together.  Sometimes I am on a learning curve.  And I need to get through up that curve to arrive at a point where I am self-starting, proactive and persistent – or to anyone else – cool, calm and collected!

So what should I do about my disorganized neighbours?

Well, neigbours on long-distance flights, as in life, can be interesting or dull.  They can genuinely require help, or just be the most feckless, disorganized wretches that it is possible to imagine.

It doesn’t matter which they are. They are. They simply ‘are’.  We take them as we find them.  I’ve found myself reading for hours to an 8 year old travelling alone and on another flight, moving seats to allow an engineer travelling from Melbourne to Rwanda to use my seat to sleep.  I’ve shared a beer with a fireman from 9/11 and translated for seamen determined to drink the bar dry as they flew from Cape Town to Beijing.

They each had their goals, their plans based on their understanding of their world, and their judgement of the situation.  They’ll settle soonest if they can explore the situation they find themselves in, learn what works, and balance up alternative plans.  The sooner they can do that without distraction from me, the sooner they will settle.

And talking about the recession?

Like most people, I am exasperated by the mess made by the banks.  I am not even sure why we continue to pay people who are manifestly not competent in the business they have chosen.

I am also looking forward to the point where more people around me are ‘up to speed’ on what is happening in the world of international finance.  I’ll even be happy when more people around me are actively trying to find out what is happening.

I would like to see people setting positive goals.   Too many goals seem to be persistent in the wrong way  – hanging on to what we thought would happen – and no longer relevant to what is happening.  As we learn about this new world, we must find goals that are attractive in spite or even because of the mess. We will still have to deal with the mess, but it won’t bother us half as much if we have our own goals on the horizon.

And then we will find ourselves more active – less inclined to groan when the alarm clock goes off.

The truth is achieving goals is simple – the universe really seems to help us.  Deciding on our goals is the hard part.

Come with me!

So I’ve begun.  Today, I flicked open my SEO notebook at the back and started jotting down key figures on the British economy as I found them in various articles.

How are you learning more about the financial system and the economy?

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Sing and dance to the music of the recession!

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance & the financial crisis

Over the last one -and-a-quarter years, since the run on Northern Rock, I’ve been making a concerted effort to understand the credit crunch, the financial crisis and the recession.  The nature of understanding big, bad events is that we are so busy trying to understand them that we have little time to reflect.

Typically, we follow a five stage process.

  • First, we deny the crisis either saying “I’m OK – it doesn’t affect me” or conversely ranting “This can’t be happening.”
  • Then we move on to anger, when we are quite clear we are not to blame and that someone else such as politicians and bankers should be punished for getting us in to our mess.
  • When we are a bit further along, we work out what will stay the same in our lives and what we can can cut out.
  • The next stage is to resign ourselves to our mess dragging on for twenty years or so,  and we are actually secretly relieved because if the mess is that big, there is nothing you and I, ordinary Joe citizen, can do about it.
  • And eventually we begin to dig beneath the surface of the crisis and, in this case, set about upgrading our financial know-how and skills.

Where are you?  And where are the people around you?

My job as a psychologist

I have a page where I store good, accessible explanations of how we got into the financial crisis and I will expand it to include the financial know-how that you and I should have.

Being a psychologist though, I think it is my job to bring to your attention key psychological ideas that equip you for understanding the recession and the ways we react to it.

  • The first psychological idea in this post is described in the at the beginning.  We often respond to bad news in five rough stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  We go through these stages when we hear of the sudden death of a loved one.  And we are going through similar stages as we get our heads around the idea that our financial system has been subject to a the equivalent of a major earthquake.
  • The second psychological idea in this post is that objective knowledge matters.  Positive psychology emphasizes that our attitude to a problem makes a big difference.  It does, and I will return to that in other posts.   But objective information matters too.  It is foolish to pretend that a large box isn’t heavy.  We are much better off when we understand the principle of levers.  We do need to take charge of our education about the financial system.  We clearly did not understand it well enough to play our role as informed voters, wise buyers and sellers of stocks and shares, and savvy consumers of mortgages and credit cards.
  • The third psychological idea is the one I wanted to highlight today because I think it will be key to the mental housekeeping required to come to terms with the recession.

In the west, we have a weird idea that time is linear

Of course, we ‘know’ that yesterday was before today and today comes before tomorrow.  Unfortunately our separation of time into yesterday, today and tomorrow, has some peculiar side effects.   This works in two ways.

  • In good times, we spend like mad and rack up debt.   We take ‘Carpe Diem‘ or ‘seize the day’ far too far.   Tomorrow features insufficiently in our thinking about today, and when tomorrow comes, we are in a mess.
  • Equally, in bad times, we look ahead, see a diminished tomorrow, and we feel dejected.  In short, we bring tomorrow far too much into today.

This inability to act appropriately in time is an inability to ‘give unto Ceasar’ or to accept that ‘for everything there is a season’.  The net effect is that we enjoy life a lot less.  We also rack up unhealthy deficits and one day we wake up very disappointed with our lives and where we have taken ourselves.

And then we are into the five stage process I described at the outset. This cannot be happening. It is not my fault.  OK, I will compromise.  Oh, this is impossible.  And then ultimately: OK, I’d better get on and understand this.

Are you acquainted with philosopher Alan Watts?

At the end of this post is a video presentation, about 3 minutes long, that accompanies the late English philosopher, Alan Watts, talking about the way we confuse time.

He begins “you get into kindegarten, then you get into first grade  .  .   .”  And ends, life “was a musical thing and you were supposed to dance or sing while the music was being played”.

Do watch it!

I grew up in a competitive culture so this resonated with me.  I have long protested that we should let 3 year olds be 3, and 18 years olds be 18.  Preparing for the next year is part of a 3 year old’s experience but it is not all of their task.  And being 3 should never be dreary.  Nor should being 84!

Recessions are simply part of life

Like preparing for a test or examination, they are there to be enjoyed (!) along with all the other activities that come at the same stage.

It takes time to work through the five stages of our reaction to bad news.  And we work through at different paces.  So we need to be patient with ourselves and each other.  But we also do need to resolve not to become stuck at any stage.

We may be in for a long and difficult time in this financial crisis.  What I am suggesting is that we sing and dance to the music nonetheless!

Come with me!

Here is the link to this great presentation accompanying Alan Watts.  Do enjoy it and have a good weekend!  There is a season for everything!

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A comprehensive 2 x 2 x 2 on HR and the recession

Organizing ideas about HR and the recession

Many people are landing on this blog looking for information about HR and the recession.  I suspect, though without any evidence, that many people seeking this information may be students, or people deputed to write a position paper on what HR should be doing.

This is intended to help you out. It is a summary, though a long summary, of earlier posts. I’ve also framed it with ideas you will find in classical text books on HR. I am writing mindfully that you may want to use the information for a presentation.

Any one else reading might like to check through to see what I have forgotten. You might also be interested in my inclusion of positive HR that is not yet in most textbooks. It is a long post though, and you may want to bookmark it for later.


HR strategy, in business or in other organizations, be they public or private, follows a disciplined logic. Before we decide what to pursue in the HR arena, we ask 4 questions.

  1. What are macro-environmental factors that affect everyone – us , our customers and our competitors?
  2. What business are we in, and what are the institutional factors that affect all firms in our line of work?
  3. What are the micro-environmental factors that set us apart from our competitors?
  4. What are the laws and regulations specific to the jurisdiction where we will be hiring people?

A recession falls mainly under the first question. Recessions may also affect the other three questions as well. For this post, though, we will look only at the way a contraction across the entire economy changes the general pattern of HR, no matter what business we are in.

HR managers struggle, typically, to assert itself within the management team. To clarify our role, initially to ourselves, we typically look at our contribution along two dimensions: hard to soft, and strategic to administrative. ‘Hard’ HR looks at issues like productivity and legal contracts. ‘Soft’ HR looks at emotions, morale, loyalty and engagement. Strategic HR asks the big questions about the type of HR that we need – much as we are asking in this post. Administrative HR is the HR we all see – the forms, the interviews, the communications.

We need to be good in all FOUR areas, and all four areas change in emphasis when the economy slows down. I’ll summarise those changes in a moment.

It being 2009, we also need to add a third dimension: positive HR to ‘gap’ HR. Gap HR is the HR that is commonly described in textbooks, which sadly are always somewhat out-of-date. In gap HR, someone – somewhere – has decided what is good, and the rest of us are required to live up to that ideal. It is akin to a jigsaw puzzle. The picture is known, and we are the scrambled pieces to be put together following a preordained pattern. Positive HR is generative. We may have a picture in mind, but we do not believe it is the only picture. Indeed, we define a good day as the day that we discover a better picture than the one we had previously imagined. This is akin to leggo. We have building blocks which we use to test out possibilities.

With three dimensions, each crudely broken into two, we have 2x2x2 or 8 types of HR, that we can think about and ask systematically, how they change when we move at a national economic level from positive to negative growth.

And then we can ask how we can integrate our observations into a general approach to HR in a recessive economy.

1 Hard, strategic, ‘gap’ HR

A typical task of hard, strategic, ‘gap’ HR is scenario planning. Along with other people who are responsible for the future of the organization, we imagine how the economy might change and we anticipate how we, our competitors and our customers will react to each scenario as it unfolds.

Small business owners do this too. They follow discussions about the economy and they will typically look at a worst case, best case and a likely scenario. Yesterday, a business owner told me that he was working on the economy contracting until around September 2009, and then beginning to grow very slowly.

From this thinking, we are able to make ‘guess estimates’ of sales, and work backwards to the number of people who are needed by the organization and the skills they should have.

2 Hard, administrative, ‘gap’ HR

At the administrative level, it is likely that we will bring some contracts with employees to and end using redundancy provisions – so we pull those regulations off the shelf and dust them off. We are also likely to be pulling out the early retirement rules. We may be recruiting less – so we will try to maintain our relationships with the colleges and schools in the area, while tactfully indicating we will be hiring fewer people. We will also be looking out for government-backed schemes to train people and to subsidize employment in one way or another.

3 Soft, strategic, ‘gap’ HR

At the other end of the hard-soft continuum, we imagine what our organizations will look like, and the way members will interact with each other in five years’ time. We discuss, for example whether Gen Y are different from Gen X and baby boomers.

Planning the way we interact is the most likely area of HR to be sacrificed in difficult times.  Letting this area go is the biggest mistake we can make.  Managers will react under pressure, in the way we all do, by over-emphasizing their fears, and putting too much faith in their own judgement. We will hear a lot of talk that dismisses the views of other people.

When we hear this talk, it is the sign of an organization in deep trouble. It is in trouble financially. It lacks depth in its leadership. It lacks loyalty to its employees and other stakeholders.

HR leadership needs to be there, to turn around this emotional climate.  We should not let this go.  This is our main contribution during a recession.

4 Soft, administrative, ‘gap’ HR

On the soft side ,at the administrative level, much training, whether it is directed at productivity, or soft interactional skills, is also sacrificed, while more money is spent on stress-relief (usually for senior people) and counselling for people facing redundancy.

It is important to help people cope with the emotional distress of extremely unpleasant changes to their lifestyles, but regrettably in a ‘gap’ system, HR usually steps in after the distress has occurred.  We would be better advised to step in earlier.

5 Hard, strategic, positive HR

Turning now to postive HR, we should note at the outset, that positive management styles are not necessarily cheerful.  To be cheerful all the time is like expecting a 12 month summer, and a harvest every week. Positive management styles accept that life is changing, and that we need to change our ways consistently with changes in the real world. Hard, strategic positive HR attempts to take us, from worlds we know, into worlds we don’t know.

It is an obvious fact that we don’t enjoy recessions because we are losing a world we like. As in winter, we see little sun, and as in winter, if we don’t know how to dress warmly and to cook comfort foods, we may have a difficult time.

This recession that we are encountering now, though, is more like an earthquake or tsunami. We aren’t just dealing with a season that we encounter every year. We are dealing with a large mess that arrived abruptly. Structures, we have formerly depended upon, have been destroyed. What else can we do but rebuild, and rebuild better structures, that will last us for the next 50 to 100 years?

Just as in a natural emergency, first we attend to safety. We count heads and we count our supplies and we set about giving everyone the basics : water, food, shelter, medicine. Then without a break in our stride, we depute appropriate people to work on the bigger issues. We set about searching for missing people. We put people in groups to identify priorities. And we put people to work.

BTW, it is standard practice to fly in psychologists to emergency areas to ‘debrief’ or help people cope with the immediate shock. The psychologists are rotated, and are debriefed themselves as they are pulled back ‘behind the lines’. Emotion is contagious, and emotional sanitation, sorry to call it that but to make the point, is as important as clean water and ways to handle human effluent.

In short, we deal with the situation in which we find ourselves in. There is no going back, and the only forward is together, respecting our distress, and making use of all our resources, within which we will find our answers.

The HR leader understands this process and brings it into the practical work we are doing on a day-to-day basis.

6 Hard, administrative, positive HR

As with hard, administrative, gap HR, we will be looking at regulations but with an eye for possibility. We want to be like the on-line out-sourcers who responded to Hurricane Katrina, and put their computer systems at the disposal of authorities. We want to be associated with ‘delivering a bigger bang for our buck’.  We don’t want to be associated with cutting costs and bringing misery to people who depend on us and trust us.

An example from UK, is the offer of a four day week to KPMG staff. It is a positive move. At the same time, computer geeks in the south-east have got together to make business services available to people starting their own businesses. It would be good to see large firms, who are essentially very profitable and who made a lot of money when times were good, reach out to help parts of the community who are far more distressed than they are.

We can have immense satisfaction and even in triumph in our use of routine facilities.

7 Soft, strategic, positive HR

Soft, strategic positive HR is the most demanding of our 8 areas, and is needed more during a recession than in good times. When we are faced with loss, it is extremely difficult to sit down with other people to think of ways forward. We become very concerned that we will lose out, and we tend to focus more on what we will gain personally, than on what we can create together.

We need soft strategic, positive HR  to proactively help leaders remain generative. Once they’ve moved into a psychological position where they are prepared to be disloyal to their employees, it will be difficult to turn them around. We need to act swiftly to keep their mood positive, so they can imagine possibilities and see constraints as enjoyable hurdles.

To neglect early soft strategic HR will be our biggest failure. From that we can never recover.

8 Soft, administrative, positive HR

Soft, administrative positive HR is slowly coming in to focus in an area dubbed .personal leadership.. Personal leadership is easiest to understand when we observe the 24/7 nature of the internet. Whatever we do, where ever we do it, becomes visible as someone photographs us and tags us on Facebook, or another network.

The internet provides both the challenge, and the opportunity, to live coherently and authentically. No longer do we go to work as one person and change into another at the door. Gen Y are used to being the same person all day long, and though employers have found that confusing, it is now an advantage.

Gen Y are very receptive to setting personal goals that are big enough to include the company, but also not totally dependent on the company. They make energetic partners, who sense wider possibilities, which they bring into the firm. Yet they are willing to move on if necessary.

HR’s role is to ensure that everyone has developed their personal plans and are pursuing them with gusto.

Putting it all together

Eight parts of a portfolio are many parts, and these are only the features of the macro-environment, the first of the four questions we asked at the start. But lets pull together these 8 ideas before the patchwork grows any more complicated. This is the order in which I would think about an HR policy during a recession.

  1. Look after ourselves. In a recession, we feel as if someone has taken away our toys. We aren’t happy, and what’s more, we worry, that someone will come along and take away some more. Our first goal, in this state of stress, is to restore a mood in which we can deal with threats objectively, and return to a generative and imaginative outlook. In short we must be as good at winter as we are at summer. And because winter makes us gloomy, we need to look after ourselves and deliberately allocate time and resources to nurturing an appreciative outlook. Are we enjoying the winter?
  2. Be purposeful, one and all.  Recapturing a positive mood is not simply a way to have a party. We have a purpose. After a recession, and particularly this one, we are not going back to where we were. This is the equivalent of a hard winter that will affect the next summer, and harvest as well. So we need to set up goals for the cold season, and the seasons that follow. Each person should have a goal. If mum and dad are retiring to have quiet mumbles, leaving the kids to do whatever they see fit, they will be surprised the day there is no food on the table. Our task is to get everyone to discuss the practical issues openly and calmly, to work out the schedules and goals, and to monitor our progress. Our goal is not to carry on as usual. It is to understand the meaning of a hard winter and to find roles for ourselves where we contribute to the common good.
  3. Weave in dreams.  Nonetheless, we don’t really understand what is going on and there is some panic about. We might be trying to hide our panic but, to continue the analogy, kids know more than we think, and can solve appropriate age-related problems quite well. People like being consulted and depended upon, so we should put people onto solving the problems where they have the greatest expertise. The hardest problem to solve is the disappointment of people who need to delay life plans – a person who has to delay going to college, for example. Our task as leaders is to acknowledge the difficulty, and to bring the person’s life story into the frame. What are the things that they could be doing now that they are particularly good at, that help everyone else too, and that get them ready for their life ahead? There is a a lot of work doing this with everyone in even a small firm, and we must remember that we too, need to rest, recover and attend to our own dreams.
  4. Let former experts work on well understood problems. Though there is much we don’t know, there is still plenty that we do. I would ask a mixture of implementers and defensive pessimists to explore and plan our responses to well known issues.
  5. We still need the regulation gurus. New government regulations will almost certainly come into play. People with detail-oriented, administrative minds and experience will take charge of this for us.
  6. Bring all the good ideas together and let people see them. All this while, people are generating good ideas that are grounded in their own work and experience. We want to catch the ideas and weave them in to our plans, in an open wiki, so everyone can follow how our ideas are developing.
  7. Celebrate our past, good and bad, as our foundation of the future. And finally, I would capture the essence of what we are doing and show how we are carrying the strengths of our past with us into the future. I wouldn’t bury the negative. I would look to it for what we learned, and the relationships which emerged from our difficulties.

Come with me!

I hope this helps you. I have started a wiki called MGMT101 to organize ideas about managing in the 21st century. If you would like to add your own ideas, or comment on others, please do drop a comment here, and head over there to add your thoughts.

Have a winning week!

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Where will you be when the recession ends?

Where are you going to be when the recession ends? And when will it end?daffiodils-by-john-morgan-via-flickr

Out-and-about the parks and landscapes of the internet, three broad scenarios are being discussed:

  • Nothing has changed. This is a temporary downturn. Be careful with your money. Try to avoid being laid off. We’ll be back to normal in 2010, or soon thereafter.
  • The end is nigh. Capitalism is over. And if capitalism is not over, we are going to have a Depression. So go down to the video store to get out some movies on the Great Depression because that is were we are headed.
  • In recent years, we have been spending beyond our means and we need to rethink the basis of our wealth and political power. Cutting back is not the issue. Re-jigging the economy is the issue so that we can emerge ‘re-conditioned’ for the next 30-40 years.

Which camp do you fall into? This is my thinking.

Rough summary of our economic position

The USA has an economy around 5 times the size of the UK’s, and and they have 5 times the population. So we differ in size but not so much in wealth.

China and India have either overtaken the UK last year, or are overtaking us this year in the size of their economy, but they have around 15-17 times our population (each), or over 3 to 4 times the US population.

The US is well ahead of everyone else by a long margin. To stay ahead, though, whether there was a financial crisis or not, they have to do something about their economy.

Obama has been spelling out the issues. The US economy is too dependent on oil. Too many people are reliant on ‘old’ industries, which can be run more efficiently in China and India who also have lower input costs. The numbers of well-educated Chinese and Indian graduates far exceeds the numbers of comparable US graduates.

The issues are not dissimilar in the UK.

My sense of what is important

I get so annoyed to see people being advised to ‘hang on to jobs’ in industries which are in their twilight years. It’s true that as parents we may feel that we have to hang on to whatever income we have, just as as immigrants, for example, run corner shops and drive taxis to give their children a good start in life. But to be too defensive, is not wise.

Since I arrived in the UK, almost one and a half years ago, I’ve been amazed that so many people want to leave. And almost all the young people do.

This is ‘discourse’ to some extent. People talk about going to New Zealand as a way of getting away from something that irritates them. They don’t mean to go, but the idea that they could, relieves them of the trouble of sorting out what bothers them.

When young people say fiercely, “I am going to get away from here”, this too is ‘discourse’, and in part, a currently fashionable way of expressing ambition and determination.

My sense of what we should be giving priority

But, what if we treated the young people of the UK differently?

What if we celebrated their achievements more? What if paid more attention to their dreams? What if we put their dreams more clearly at the top of our national agenda?

Would that be molly-coddlying them? Would that sap their ambition and drive? I don’t think so. I think that knowing we value their dreams as much as their achievements would allow them to pursue their dreams with more confidence and to waste less energy on worrying about failure.

David Whyte, British corporate poet, talks of the dreadful alienation that adolescents feel when they realise that their parents are burdened with life. If we are not living joyously in expectation of where the economy is going, how do we expect our children to?

Come with me

Which industry do you believe is fit for the teen years of this century?

What is catching your eye?

How big will this industry be?

What are its opportunities?

Why does it fascinate you?

I would like to know your dreams.

Which industries do you feel are like daffodil bulbs,  and like to be planted in a good frost, so they can burst into exuberant life at the first hint of spring?

P.S. Thanks to John-Morgan for this wonderful picture of daffodils via Flickr

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

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You, me and the woes of General Motors

I’ve been collecting every visual and pictorial explanation of the financial crisis that I can find and storing on my page: Financial Crisis Visually.

Today, via @flowingdata, I came across this poster chart of the collapse of GM.


Wouldn’t it be a good idea if every company had its strategic position boldly displayed on the canteen wall?  What internal factors matter?  Where does our money go? What external factors are we watching?

I am sure Jess would be happy to have the commission!  She is also the artist behind other visuals I have stored.

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

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