Keeping your project on track while the sky is falling (economically speaking)

Unless you have been underwater or on Mars for the last six months, you know that the economy in the United States (and globally) is in the worst shape anyone has experienced—except maybe your grandparents who talk about the Great Depression over Thanksgiving dinner. As a project manager, you are not immune from concerns about layoffs and falling investments and neither is your staff. In fact, you may find productivity steadily declining on your project as people’s individual worries trump their performance.

What’s happening?

Your staff is concerned about their job and the company’s future in this downturn. Layoffs are happening across industries, job types, and in all parts of the country. Many of them know good workers (and friends) who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and they wonder, “Could I be next?” Their mental energy and focus is being distracted by thoughts of personal security: They may be in self-protect mode. This behavior is a primitive, old brain response to perceived threat and cannot be overcome with logical or rational thought.  And logic would be what I, and most project managers, would try to use.

What can the project manager do to help lessen fears?

First, acknowledge the fear. Listen to your staff in group meetings and individually. This may be hard as you watch the tasks and work not getting done, but try this step. This is not an hour long therapy session, just giving them tacit permission to express their fears. Let them know it is okay to be worried and to talk about it. The stages of grief are applicable here—shock, denial, awareness, acceptance, and integration. Talk with your staff about what can be controlled and what cannot. Be honest. If you have information about the company’s position and future plans, share it (to the extent that you can). Believe me, what your project staff imagines is happening is often (no—always) far worse than reality.

Next, increase the perception of control. Fear is about the unknown and loss of control. Tell your staff what you are doing to improve the position of your project, and therefore the staff, in the view of senior management. Encourage your staff to come up with cost saving ideas, schedule improvements, new business opportunities, and let them know how you are sharing that information up the organization’s management chain. Provide a role model of dealing with the uncertainty while still moving forward on project goals.

Finally, if reducing headcount on your project is unavoidable, make the process as fair and transparent as possible. Work with senior management to implement layoffs with humanity and respect for individuals. Those who remain will be aware of unfair or disrespectful treatment and it will color their perception of the company even after prospects improve. Remember the saying “There but by the Grace of God…. It could have been me.”

How can you keep your project on track?

Of course you still have the problem of keeping project on target.  When everyone’s performance is being scrutinized, it is essential that you have measureable project goals and a doable project timetable. If your original project plan was based on a six month deliverables, change the time frame and focus to quarterly or even monthly. You need to be able to report progress and production every time senior management asks for a new projection and report. In fact, you can do it before they ask for it!  This strategy also gives your staff more of a feeling of accomplishment than longer range timelines or project goals provide.

Pay more attention than usual to staff accomplishments and reinforce on-target task behavior. When a staff member is falling behind, offer to find help. Your creativity will be challenged many times in getting problems solved during this tough time, but you may be surprised at the willingness to help and the imaginative solutions your team, working together, can offer.

Listen to the grapevine. If rumors are spreading—and you can be sure they are— it is time for a reality check and accurate information. Share information good or bad—hoarding does not help. As a last thought, during your weekly project meetings, add an agenda item about the future of your project, your technology, and the company. Remind people that there is a future and that what is happening now, as bad as it might be, is not the final story.  You can set the tone and outlook by how you act and lead.


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