How to survive a corporate setback with your workplace culture intact

Changes and setbacks are an inevitable part of every company’s journey. At some point, most organizations will have to pivot without much planning just to survive and stay competitive.

By Dr Jody Aked

Corporate set back

Very few organizations never change their strategy or business models. Restructures, layoffs and closures are a part of business. For some of our clients, facing setbacks plunged their organizations and employees into chaos. When this happens the focus shifts to damage mitigation and saving workplace culture becomes an afterthought.

But putting culture on the backburner is overlooking why change is so painful for employees.

Setbacks destabilise organizations precisely because they leave people feeling untethered and disconnected from what is ‘normal’. By nature, people crave stability and want it to return as soon as possible. When employees no longer recognise their company because of a change in corporate mission, a change in leadership or the redundancy of a colleague, anxiety and fear often quickly set in.

Our data has shown that changes and setbacks can cause happiness at work to drop 30-60 points on a 100-point scale in a single week. It’s not surprising that an organizational setback is felt so directly by employees. What is interesting, however, is how teams and divisions bounce back.

Psychological attributes like resilience are often talked about as an individual characteristic, but resilience is a property of teams and organizations as well. Resilience is built through trust. The way your organization mitigates changes and setbacks depends on how you manage trust in the face of adversity— and what keeps teams resilient is a high level of trust.

Here’s some insight on what your organization can do to prepare against major company setbacks.

Well, that hurt. What can we do to get by?

A key component of resilience is the ability to absorb shocks and bounce back. For teams, their ability to cope depends on their level of preparedness. The Stoic philosopher Seneca taught that as long as we are mentally prepared for setbacks — as in we acknowledge they COULD happen — we reduce shock and won’t be as paralysed by them. Instead, we can say, “Well that hurt. What can we do to get by?”

At Friday Pulse, one of the things we encourage is open and honest communication between team members and team leaders. If a team leader is aware of setbacks and significant changes on the horizon, it’s important to let the team know so they aren’t blindsided by it. Having open conversations ahead of impending crises can help teams prepare with solutions on how to minimise damage.

The grim alternative to this is silence. When employees feel like they were lied to or misinformed — even if they weren’t — they lose trust in their leaders. That sort of opinion is difficult to change and takes lots of work for leaders to undo.

Use the Science of Wellbeing

Many companies are using the science of wellbeing to create cultures that ready employees to adapt and lean into change. Melanie Robinson, Senior Director at ADP, spoke at an event about using a new strengths-based approach to their talent management programme. Employees are encouraged to check and adapt their work focus to play to their skills and interests, which in turn will increase the agility of the workplace culture.

Research supports this approach, showing that organizations are more resilient when employees are not trapped in a rigidly defined career track. By allowing employees to draw on their strengths and interests, companies not only reap the benefit of solid work and productivity but also help employees build the psychological capacity to pivot in the face of change without feeling overly stressed.

Smaller businesses often don’t have the budgets to facilitate the talent management programmes, like the one described above. Instead, smaller organizations can use tools like Friday Pulse to prompt regular and authentic conversations about how they feel at work and learn about their culture. These conversations guide team leaders into where unique opportunities to build preparedness in different ways, like strong cross-team working relationships.

Honest and Authentic Conversations

Leaders are often affected by the discomfort and pain surrounding the decisions they’ve made. Their choices can cause them to withdraw and focus on crafting messages to send out to the business when what is required is humility and a good conversation. Leaders can stay authentic, empathetic and competent in the eyes of their employees by having honest conversations with them. It’s better to paint a picture of likely scenarios than wait to share a perfectly mapped out plan of action.

If your organization is small enough, ask how employees are doing in person. Global or remote organizations can use technology to facilitate these conversations. Some of our clients have added custom questions to their quarterly pulse survey during periods of business change to monitor levels of understanding, and to find out whether colleagues feel supported. These questions allow the company to create space for dialogue and suggest ideas on how to work better together.

Though in the short term these approaches may appear to slow the process down, they actually speed up business transformation. A leadership that invests the time to have good quality conversations with its workforce recognizes an essential point about the human psyche — we are more accepting of decisions we have been a part of making, even when they don’t go our way. In the medium term, honest conversations with employees will speed up the transformation. And in the long-term, that trust will be retained or even strengthened.

Reset with Wellness First

Crisis is an opportunity for novelty and innovation. Constraints like limited budget or less personnel can shift people from complacency and into new and better ideas. So long as these constraints are not too burdensome, disruption and the novel problems it brings can cultivate greater collaboration and creativity.

That said, periods of change are also an excellent opportunity to adjust habits around self-care. Periods of setback and change are times of high stress, so it is vital to take a step back. Walking meetings, healthy snacks, massages, meditation, email downtime, expressing appreciation, informal socialising are all things that nurture and sustain us. These are activities often squeezed out in the busy day-to-day.

Periods of change often bring heavier workloads that are draining and require short bursts of positivity and recovery to recharge. In the same way as athletes have to possess realistic expectations of their bodies to avoid injury, we must have realistic expectations of our mind to prevent burnout.

Major corporate setbacks or change is undoubtedly a turbulent and chaotic time for any organization. How well a workplace culture survives these periods entirely depends on its ability to develop resiliency — the ability to absorb, adapt and transform. Though change is inevitable and necessary, if you involve your employees in the change process then transformation is possible — with your workplace culture intact.

Read our top tips on helping your team cope during a corporate setback here