“Am I going to lose my job?”
“Theresa”, one of my direct reports asked me during a recent one-on-one. After 15 years of leadership, I’m finally learning how to handle this tough question, though it still makes me uncomfortable. And I’m not alone. During my career, I’ve had the chance to work with many different types of leaders and whenever I work with leaders who are leading through a big change or crisis, “Am I going to lose my job?” is at the top of their list of the really tough questions they struggle with.
What makes this question so difficult?
A couple of reasons:
First, unless you can answer “yes,” because their job actually is being eliminated (in which case you’ve probably have some HR back-up), there is no clear answer. In reality, the most accurate answer is something like “Maybe, some day in the future...” While many of us “intellectually” get that, emotionally it doesn’t relieve the anxiety that’s going on for the employee.
Second, our brains instantly start rummaging through old, internal files from all those HR and legal trainings, especially the ones that left us feeling that one wrong word or phrase could get us or our companies sued. This line of thinking also increases our own anxiety levels because we still can’t give any clear, right answer.
Leaders are facing this question now more than ever. My team, like so many others around the world, are feeling uncertain about our jobs and our future in the current business, social, and geopolitical environments. In this sense, the problem isn’t the question. Theresa is just saying out loud what everyone else is thinking, including me. The problem is thinking we need to provide a “Yes” or “No” answer.
Instead, I now use this challenging question as a dialogue starter vs. scrambling to find an appropriate response to end it as quickly as possible. How? I become curious and ask questions to figure out what’s going on. If I can learn more about what she’s thinking and feeling, I’ll have a better chance of responding in a way that helps.
Using this approach, here’s how my conversation went with Theresa:
Me: That’s a reasonable question given what’s going on. I think I understand why you’re asking it, but I’d like to hear more. What’s causing you to ask this question right now?
T: Well, with all that’s going on, I am just feeling pretty anxious. I know I was the last one hired on the team and I’ve worked at companies where “last in” means “first out.”
Me: (At this point I could have jumped in but decided to get more information) “Got it. Is there anything else adding to your anxiety right now?”
T: “I just really like the work I’m doing…plus, things are uncertain for my partner right now too…I just wish I had more answers.”
Me: “Okay, that makes sense. Yeah, I wish I could give you a clear answer about what’s going to happen, but you’re right, I can’t. So let’s focus on what we can do that might help…”
From there we focused on three things that really helped her feel better – things that are in our control as leaders to do:
- Start with the human: I continued to help identify what else she was finding stressful, then pivoted to what she’s doing to help manage her stress, asking what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. Now more than ever, people need compassion and recognition that their feelings are normal, helping them to feel connected and okay.
- Reinforce strengths: I asked what she currently loves about her work. What tasks give her energy and motivation? Then, I shared specific examples of the strengths I see her bringing to her work and how she is supporting our team. Reinforcing “what’s good” about work helps us feel strong and provides a balance to all the things that feel “wrong” right now.
- Provide clarity where you can: We talked about her current projects, progress she was making, and where I could help. I also re-committed to continuing frequent check-ins with her and the team to communicate any broader changes as transparently and quickly as I could. With so much uncertainty, we all need structure and clarity where possible, even if that’s in the form of how we work together through this crisis vs. coming up with predictions about the future.
In summary, being scared of losing one’s job causes anxiety, which could lead to poor performance that then creates a self-fulfilling prophesy. The best leaders have the power and ability to understand how to use the right tools to make these situations less overwhelming by creating a dialogue that’s open, clear and compassionate.