Ask the CHO: Dealing with uncertainty at work

A reader sent me this question:

The company I work at “went global”. That means horrible things like many people fired and so. Thus, people are afraid to lose their job, even when I directly asked a manager I trust and he said that “no one from your department will lost his job”. People don’t trust management. Some are cynical, some are afraid, but I think, at different levels, all are unhappy with the situation. I like these people very much, and I would like to do something to confort them, but so far, listening was the only thing I was able to do.

Additionally, the people from another site are also unhappy, because even when most of them are very capable professionals, they are being threated like… uhm.. incapable kids (not to mention the fact that they know that they were hired because they are “cheaper”).

Any suggestions to improve the situation?

First of all thanks for a great question which describes a situation that is found in many workplaces today: A workplace goes through large-scale changes and people wonder “what will it mean for me?” Management may or may not try to create some certainty, but may fail because of a lack of trust.

It sounds like you’ve been doing the right thing already by asking a manager you trust what will happen and by simply listening to people. Often people in this situation don’t need reassurances or comforting they need empathy.

In the situation where a workplace is plagued by uncertainty, there are basically three ways to go:
1: Seek certainty
Go to a manager who should know and explain that this uncertainty is bad for the employees and is harming productivity and results (this should get the managers attention). If they’re willing to tell you what will happen why not get it in writing? Write “Nobody from this department will lose their jobs” on a poster in huge letters and get the manager to sign it. Then hang the poster in the department.

But very often, getting certainty is not an option because no one knows what whill happen. Then you can try the other two approaches.

2: Take the challenge
I know of a factory that was going to be closed down a year later with all the people there either being fired or being transferred to jobs in another city. They decided to take the challenge and use that year to make the factory so efficient and productive that there was no way management could close them down.

The result: They became the best factory in the corporation and did not shut down!

And that’s another approach: Be defiant! They’re threatening to fire people? Let’s show them how good we are!

3: Enjoy work anyway
If uncertainty is certain (which it is in may workplaces) then we face a tough decision. You can quit your job, but the next workplace may be just as uncertain, many workplaces are these days.

But the question is: Can we enjoy our jobs even though we have this uncertainty? If we can, we become more efficient and even reduce the risk of being fired. But how can you be happy at work when you or your colleagues risk being fired? Here are some tips:
1: Talk about it. Don’t just let everyone wonder about it alone. Talk to each other
2: Ask yourselves what mood you want in the company? What would be a good atmosphere to have in your department untill you get certainty (which of course may never come)?
3: Listen!

Now the reason these things are even a problem is of course that decisions are made without involving or informing employees. Involving all the people in these decisions is the best way to reduce uncertainty and to make better decisions, and I can only wonder that not all companies do it.

Now your question about the other department… I have a suggestion: What would happen if your department invited the other department out? Nothing fancy, just arrange for both departments to hang in a bar or a bowling alley or something. Get to know those people. Show them that even though management may disrespect them, you appreciate them. Build some positive relationships and just plain have fun.

5 thoughts on “Ask the CHO: Dealing with uncertainty at work”

  1. Just thought I’d bring this post back up. I’m having severe issues with my current employer and job today. I work for a huge financial services company that’s posted losses the last few quarters that are larger than many country’s GDP. It sounds like they’re set to post more losses. Two months ago my boss, who was probably among the hardest working people in the firm, was let go. And the new boss has been tasked with getting our “stuff” together. In his words “in case you’re hit by a bus, someone in a far away country can hit the ground running.” That doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in me for my future.

    Today, in trying to access the corporate email servers, I kept getting booted. Last day of the month, can’t access email, my mind started to panic. But everyone on the team was having problems with email, and it’s been resolved and I still have a job. Today. Got an email from my new boss that I’ve been given the go ahead on another project.

    So how is this affecting me overall? I’m stressed. I have massive anxiety at the littlest things. I have lost trust in my other co-workers. Like there is a conspiracy to boot me. I don’t sleep well. etc. etc. etc. Same thing that most people are starting to feel lately.

    I’ve seen this site before and this post came up in a search. I’ve been thinking about changing jobs, but as you say there can be just as much uncertainty with other employers. I can’t do #1, because my new boss is new and I don’t know him or his boss or trust either of them, and to be honest I don’t think he knows and would probably be among the last to know if major changes were coming. #2 would be an issue for me because I simply don’t respect my company any more. I don’t think working harder would do much, as my old boss was let go and he was working all the time. Even on vacations. My company seems to value sycophants over hard workers.

    So that leaves me with #3, which is possible. The problem is, right now I feel a bit of distrust of my co-workers. I have nothing to back that up, just a gut feeling. Might just be the environment. I’ve talked to many of them at points in the last couple months, and I think we’re all feeling the stress and pressure.

    I’ve made changes in my life to help. Gotten rid of all my debt. Built up an emergency fund of at least 6 months living expenses. Simplified down to the point where I don’t have many possessions and I could easily live on half my current salary. I did those things to lessen the work stress, but it hasn’t helped. I’m curious to what else, besides massive alcoholism, that could help in these troubled economic times?

    I don’t want to just be happy AT work, I want to be happy ABOUT work.


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