Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Of employee engagement and the 'survivor syndrome'

Employee engagement has been one of the key themes that we have been exploring in this blog (see Employee engagement and the story of the Sky Maiden, Passion for work and anasakti, The curious case of the object and subject of employee engagement, Appropriate measures for organizational commitment , The series on salary negotiations and psychological contract , Architects of meaning & Of owning and belonging for some of the examples). In this post, let’s look at employee engagement in the case of survivors of corporate restructuring/downsizing exercises(who often suffer from the so called ‘workplace survivor syndrome’ with symptoms like anxiety, depression, decrease in performance, poor morale and increased propensity to leave)  

At the heart of the survivor syndrome lies two emotions- guilt (“I didn't deserve to survive when my friends didn't”) and fear (“Next time, it could be my turn”). So, when it comes to employee engagement, the organization's best response is to help the survivors to deal with these emotions so that while the scars can't be erased, productivity can be restored to a great extent.

Guilt can be reduced by convincing the survivors that they deserved to survive (e.g. by following a transparent process for restructuring and for identifying the employees to be separated) and by ensuring that the employees who were separated have been well taken care of(e g. by providing a generous separation package & adequate transition support).

Fear can be addressed to some extent by publicly communicating (if possible) that the staff cuts have been completed and there is no such possibility in the foreseeable future. Providing the survivors the opportunity to receive psychological counseling/ stress management training with a focus on coping  strategies can also help. Of course, constant communication with the employees at all levels that addresses the stated and unstated concerns has to be continued. Another type of fear is regarding increased workloads and new skill sets required. This can be addressed through careful work planning and capability building. People managers can be trained to look for signs of stress in the employees and to manage the employees in a supportive manner. Of course, any tendency among the people manages to use the residual fear to drive productivity ('blackmailing' employees to work harder) should be curbed.

What is perhaps irreversible from the employee engagement point of view (especially for the next few years) is that the employer- employee relationship moves to a purely rational plane (whereas most definitions of employee engagement include the aspect of deep emotional connect that the employees have to the organization). This is because, layoffs are often perceived as a breach of the psychological contract. This would be more so in those organizations that have been communicating messages like ‘our company is one big family’ to the employees.

This would mean that, after the restructuring, companies would have to rely more heavily on rational means to retain and motivate employees (e.g. highly competitive salaries & performance-linked incentives, gain sharing schemes etc.) as well as investment in capability building to ensure 'employability'. Yes, the emotional connect can drive discretionary effort and lead to remarkable (business) results. But, organizations should engage the emotions of the employees only if they are willing to look at employee engagement as a relationship (and not as a tool) and are willing to reciprocate (in terms of going out of the way to care for the employees, beyond what the employment contract requires)!

In a way, the way out of the survivor syndrome is through a psychological transition process. So, actions that can facilitate the transition process like clearly explaining the need for restructuring and the process that would be followed, helping the employees to acknowledge and deal with their feelings of fear and guilt (as detailed above), clearly articulating the new vision for the organization and the possibilities it creates for the survivors and getting the survivors actively involved in rebuilding the organization and the social networks within the organization(that would have suffered because of the loss of social capital) are perhaps the highest leverage actions that organizations can focus on!