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Bruzzese: Managing through tough times can be trying

With the grim news about unemployment levels being at a four-year high and more industries facing layoffs because of tough economic times, managers clearly have their work cut out for them when it comes to keeping their workers engaged and enthusiastic.

“At a time like this, my advice for managers is to really stay connected to the people they’re responsible for – especially if they’re getting clues that layoffs may be coming,” says Michael Stallard, a management guru.

As CEO of E Pluribus Partners in Greenwich, Conn., Stallard often advises companies on how to spur employees into being more creative and passionate team members. He says that engaging workers can be tough when both the manager and employees are feeling the stress of rising prices and gloomy employment news.

“Stress sort of short-circuits the brain,” Stallard says. “But what can help reduce that stress is for people is to feel like they’re connected.”

That means that managers need to make sure they keep an open-door policy and assure workers they’re available to talk about any anxieties they may be experiencing. At the same time, Stallard says managers should actively work at finding ways to get employees out of the office, which can be ground zero for work stress.

“Go to lunch with your employees. Go for a walk with them. Spend time with them one on one, and let them express their feelings,” he says. “And make sure that when they are at work, you give them some tasks that they enjoy doing.”

Still, Stallard acknowledges that managers are in a tough position these days because while they may know layoffs or downsizings are coming, they’re not able to tell workers beforehand.

“You have an obligation to an organization to keep those confidences, and you’ll just have to tell workers that you’re not able to share that kind of information if they try and get you to tell them,” Stallard says. “To some degree, it is unfair of them to even ask.”

Stallard (www.michaelleestallard.com) advises managers trying to energize and engage employees during these tough economic times to:

• Keep focused. Employees should be reminded that they have an obligation to their other team members, and that means everyone must pull his or her weight and work toward targeted goals. Remind them how important their work is for everyone on the team, he says.

• Keeping the panic at bay. “Let them know that if they’re feeling especially anxious, they should come and talk to you,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure they know they can talk about whatever they’re going through.”

• Use social media. Some employees may be more comfortable communicating through e-mail or social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. “Face-to-face contact is always the best, but more managers have employees on different continents or in different cities. Social media is a great way to stay connected with your team and keep them engaged.”

• Remember to laugh. “Humor is a great reliever of stress,” he says. “Try and find ways to have some fun with your employees.”

But what if the worst thing happens – and a manager must lay off workers?

“The first time I had to lay someone off it made me physically sick,” Stallard says. “You have an obligation to be respectful, and show empathy. That’s critical. You also need to try and help them as much as you can in finding another job.”

Stallard says he strongly disagrees with employees being immediately escorted from a building upon dismissal from a job, which he calls “humiliating.”

“You should let them finish their day and communicate with the other employees,” he says. “One other thing to think about: The existing employees will remember how you treated those who left.”

Finally, Stallard says the key for managers trying to cope with these challenging times is to practice a management philosophy that treats people with respect and compassion through good times and bad.

“A lot of what goes into keeping people engaged through the tough times is the history of how you have managed,” he says. “It’s almost like you’re building up an emotional bank account.”

Anita Bruzzese is the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy … and How to Avoid Them” (www.45things.com). Write to her c/o: Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22107. For a reply, include a SASE.

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