The following narrative could have been brought to my attention by many of my contacts working as managers in the UK. It is an example of the cost to the individual of corporate responses to austerity measures. It also offers me the opportunity to share a piece of work that achieved really positive results.
Some months ago I was contacted by Jerome, a sales team leader in a large company, who told me that his employers had put him under excessive pressure; he asked if I thought they were attempting to manage him out of his position. He had been in his post for nearly six years and regularly met all targets. However, during the previous six months his team has begun to struggle and he took the brunt of the negative attention levelled against them by senior management, putting him under huge pressure.
Jerome explained that the company were imposing ever more stringent and challenging goals for all their sales teams; most were meeting theirs, although his team was having difficulties.
In better times his group, which has been fairly stable, had achieved well, but as the economic situation began to deteriorate, their individual frailties and weaknesses had become more evident. He worked with them both one-to-one and as a team to help them step up to the mark, clearly without the desired success.
In the two weeks before he called me, two of the twelve person team had gone on sick leave; one with a chronic back problem the other suffering with stress. Both had been signed off work for four weeks, putting additional pressure on the remaining ten, who were working excessive hours to cover for the loss of productivity of their absent colleagues.
Jerome describes the team as caring, hard working individuals who had welcomed and celebrated success, although he had wanted them to have been more of a social group too; whenever an out-of-work activity had been arranged it was eventually cancelled due to lack of support.
Needless to say, I was clearly not in a position to answer Jerome’s question about the intentions of his senior management – whether or not they were trying to get him out. However, I was able to discuss with him was whether he could deal more effectively with the crisis situation, perhaps by undertaking work that would possibly have achieved greater results if it had been carried out when he began his employment. Sometime it is difficult for a leader to see how things can go wrong when success is being achieved. So many managers embrace success whilst taking it for granted.
I have often used the phrase “in the same way that a chain is as strong as its weakest link, so too is a team is as strong as the weakest relationship within it”. This adage is proven by the case study.
How much better would it have been for Jerome, if he had worked with the team from the beginning, to strengthen relationships and isolate where cracks might appear when put under pressure? Organisations often send staff on team building projects to achieve this; perhaps you have been on a course that included building a raft or another arduous challenge. I have coached teams on such events which have their place allowing managers to see how individuals within the team respond.
At my suggestion, Jerome agreed to a “Working with Difference” workshop for his team; although he felt he could little afford a half day with no productivity, but I suggested it might deliver desired results in the long run. What was achieved showed the value of team members working outside of a work based context on a bonding exercise. In the days and weeks following the workshop, the team increased productivity and created a more welcoming environment for the members on sick leave to return to.
Now, six months on, the team is once again meeting its targets, Jerome is less pressured and the group functioning well, though still having to work incredibly hard. It may have been a range of factors that helped turn around the team performance, but I believe this another proof of the value of “Working with Difference”.