I live in Calgary, Alberta. Calgary is oil country. We watch the price of a barrel of oil closely. When the price of oil goes down to any significant degree this city ends up in a crisis. The rest of the country knows oil has gone down because it is cheaper to fill their gas tank. But in Calgary, people lose their jobs. Over the last six months the price of oil has dropped by about 50%.
That isn’t pleasant, but a city that bases its existence on the price of a commodity knows that these things happen. People here are usually less attached to their companies than to their profession. People know that the jobs will reappear as the price of oil rises. Nonetheless, the mood of the city shifts dramatically and there is a lot of talk about bad news and the lack of opportunity.
This current oil price crisis has me thinking about the basic nature of corporations, as the decisions made by them are at the heart of this cycle of boom and bust. It got me wondering if organizations have a heart or soul – my conclusion is no they don’t.
I don’t want this to sound critical, so please bare with me as I explain my thinking. What I mean by this is that an organization has a mission and a vision that transcends individuality. It forms a system unto itself, and a part of any system is a desire to continue to exist. A company’s vital signs aren’t measured by the health or vitality of its employees, but by its balance sheet and its profitability. This isn’t decided by the organization, it is decided by the rules of business in general – stock markets, banks and partners all make decisions based on traditional measures of financial health. When economic conditions demand, the organization responds in order to survive and continue to produce economic value – including providing jobs for the remaining people.
Does that sound depressing to you?
It did to me. I was having a hard time getting my head around thinking of companies as soulless until I brought one other element into my thinking: organizations can’t continue to exist without being full of human beings to keep it alive. That is what matters most about the caring and soulfulness of an organization and how it responds in times of crisis.
What an amazing paradox! An organization is soulless by design, intent upon surviving without regard to human needs, yet it is populated by many soulful beings looking for answers in times of distress.
For those that have been through the trials of workforce reductions, you know the true challenge. It can be easy to do the math about what the organization can afford and what it needs to reduce. When we talk of reductions it isn’t personal … it’s just business.
In a great culture, there is an understanding of another paradox here. The leadership team knows that it isn’t personal, that it is necessary to make these changes in order to ensure the continuing health of the organization. But they make it personal in any event.
A great culture realizes that behind every “FTE” (full-time equivalent) that is let go there is a human soul, and quite likely family members that will be deeply affected as well. It also realizes that there is a need to protect the greater community as well. Those that are let go in fact contribute to the health of the organization and protect the jobs of those that remain, and for that they deserve to be honored.
A truly great culture knows how to care for both sides of the chasm – those who have departed and those that remain. As leaders it is up to us to remember why this is so important:
- Anyone being let go does not want to feel like an FTE. They are human, with human feelings, and they want to be acknowledged that they are in pain.
- Anyone who remains with the organization will notice how departures are handled. If handled soulfully, they in turn feel safer and valued. If not, they know the feeling of being an FTE rather than feeling the warmth of a human relationship. They learn that only they truly care about their own well-being and start to act accordingly.
- Leadership in times of crisis defines trust. At the same time, leaders are human too, and it can be painful to think in terms of humans instead of FTE. As leaders, do we first understand that what we need to do is required for the health of the organization, and then give ourselves permission to feel compassion for the pain of those who we must let go?
I think this last idea is the most critical – do we have the strength to feel the pain of those who are leaving and do everything we can to support them through it? There is certainly a role that culture plays in this, but in the end it comes down to the heart of each leader. Do we have the compassion?
For those that answer yes, you’ve probably found your calling as a leader.