I was an enthusiastic 21-year-old recent college graduate when I arrived for my first day of work at Texas Instruments in 1981. Ready to take on the business world, what I encountered was an office of stressed-out coworkers. The day before, the company had announced its largest layoff in history. The mood at the firm made me wonder if I had just bought myself a seat on the Titanic. Since then I’ve lived through many a recession, restructuring and downsizing and I’ve learned how to cope with the normal feelings that arise in times of uncertainty.
When we face adversity and colleagues lose their jobs, it is natural for us to fear for our own. Triggered are a range of emotions, including anxiety, anger, sadness and even grief. These emotions are grounded in our needs for respect, recognition and a sense of belonging at work. Meeting these needs is critical to restoring normal emotions.
Focus on control
If office morale is sinking due to the fear of potential job cutbacks, I recommend people concentrate on two areas. First, focus on what you control, that is, your efforts in carrying out your own job responsibilities. When you do this, your colleagues will see you in a more favorable light. If you mope around and complain, however, it looks immature and selfish. Now is not the time to drop the ball. If the team has been weakened, everyone needs to step up during this time of adjustment.
Connect with others
The worst thing for people going through a time of uncertainty is to feel alone. When we feel alone, we tend to become more pessimistic and may overreact. The office mood will sink even further if everyone tries to “suck it up” on his/her own. When people worry about losing their jobs or get stuck in their grief over the loss of their former colleagues, the level of the stress-related hormones soars in their bodies. A whole host of negative physical and mental effects arise when stress hormones remain high. When people feel connected relationally, however, and receive encouragement from others, their stress hormone levels fall. The connection helps them feel better and the clouds of gloom begin to clear.
The second response I recommend, then, is to intentionally reach out to “connect and encourage” your colleagues.
Connecting with coworkers may include taking them out for a meal or coffee or out for a walk. As important as the time and attention is the opportunity to get them to talk about how they’re feeling. Listen closely and try hard to empathize. Our brains are equipped with mirror neurons that allow us to feel what others are feeling. When you feel someone’s negative emotions, it diminishes the pain he or she feels. When you feel someone’s positive emotions, it enhances the joy he or she feels. Also, look for ways to encourage coworkers by complimenting them on their strengths and assuring them they will be fine. Because your coworkers will feel respected by you and recognized for what they do well, it will boost their sense of belonging to the group. And when you connect with and encourage others, you will find you feel better too.
Know and do
Let me forewarn you not to dismiss these recommendations because they sound simplistic. A problem in most organizations today is that people suffer from a knowing-doing gap. They know what needs to be done and yet fail to do it because it requires the expenditure of additional energy until that behavior becomes hardwired into the subconscious parts of their brains. Once they get used to the new behaviors and they are hardwired, they become natural and require less energy and intentional effort.
Create a checklist
To begin, over the next two weeks start every day by creating a checklist of what you have to get done that day to do your job well and include at least one action you are going to take to connect with and encourage a coworker. At the end of each day, review the checklist to see what you accomplished.
You can make a difference and lift the spirits of your coworkers by getting your work done well and taking the initiative to connect and encourage the people around you. If you do this, your team will weather this storm, and the support and encouragement you show one another will make you better equipped for a bright future.
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work