Managing During a Recession: So, what’s Different?

"Get off the stage you Muppet"

When you play the guitar and sing badly, you need to pick a couple of ‘crowd pleaser’ songs. My latest acquisition is 16 Tons, the old standard made popular by the American country singer, Merle Travis, with the opening lyrics:

“Now some people say a man is made out of mud.
But a poor man is made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood, skin and bone
A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong”

Prevailing Logic: The prevailing logic in organizations, for many years, was that most employees had ‘strong backs and weak minds’. Has this Neanderthal view changed in recent years? Has the recession led to new initiatives to unleash the full creativity and productivity of the workforce during troubled times?

Bill Roche is Professor of Industrial Relations and Human Resources at UCD and, arguably, Ireland’s foremost academic in the area of managing people. At a recent presentation to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Bill presented a longitudinal study where 500+ managers personally contributed. Several in-depth case studies were also completed to determine the ‘patterns of response’ to the recession. So, what were the key findings?

Relentless Pace: Firstly, people are dumbfounded by both the pace and the scale of the recession. Most are punch drunk at this point. In an economic crisis of Olympian proportions, Ireland has moved from being the hero of the Eurozone to becoming the poster child for ‘how not to’ run your economy (in fairness, the Greeks are pushing for the gold in this particular event).

Trade Unions: An interesting finding was around the role of trade unions. Realistic, pragmatic and constructive were the words emerging from the survey – a finding that mirrors my own direct experience in working with several of the larger unions during the downturn. There are a couple of notable exceptions, mostly smaller, specialized unions. Despite the fact that the hearse has been backed up, they still cannot smell the flowers. Some unions have traded off labour flexibility and gained access to financial information, albeit there have been few quid pro quo gains which are evenly balanced. Overall, it’s a buyers market for labour and trade unions have been weakened.

Giving Up: A key message from Professor Roche, was that many organizations have simply given up on the HR agenda during the recession. They’ve gone for the low hanging fruit. The weakest HR managers are frozen, essentially doing nothing because they don’t know what to do. The next best are at least responding – mainly focused on cutting back – perhaps taking their lead from Rahm Emmanuel’s quip: ‘Never waste a good recession’. The most sophisticated HR Managers are re-imagining the future in which the dynamics of the workplace are being fundamentally transformed. What this research demonstrates (and perhaps we could have guessed some of this a-priori) is that there is no ‘off the shelf’ solution to managing through a recession.

Smarten Up: Tandem Consulting have been involved with a couple of organizations, helping them to think through what a ‘new tomorrow’ would look like. This strategizing, is essentially an effort to engage the ‘minds’ of staff in pulling out of the recession. Realistically, we have been involved in some ‘slim down’ projects too. It’s not an either/or approach. It’s both slimming down and smartening up. The recession has put into sharper focus what the very best HR managers always understood. Just like that old Merle Travis standard, you need employees ‘backs & minds’ engaged in the struggle to climb out of the economic hole that we are currently in.

Paul Mooney

PS My youngest daughter Nicole (14 years) is normally not at all interested in what I do on the music front. So, I was more than surprised when she announced that she was making a sign that I could bring along to all future sessions.
“That’s brilliant Nicole. What will it say?”
“Get off the stage you Muppet”
It’s hard to be a hero in my house!

PPS: I am going on holidays this week, so taking a ‘blogging break’. Back on the net in early August. Hopefully all that Vitamin D sunshine will inspire a few good thoughts.

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About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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