The pressures of the current economic situation have taken a heavy toll on our executives, managers and employees.
I say 'current' but this is the 4th Christmas in a row where people are heading off for the holidays in a state of uncertainty, anxiety and perhaps even exhaustion. It's been relentless and there's no real end in sight and not the slightest hint of increased confidence as we peer in 2012.
But Christmas is Christmas and we seem as determined as ever to over-spend and over-eat our way through it. And it's come just as early as ever. Have you noticed how your e-mail traffic has already started to fall away?
Unlike our summer holidays where, although things go quieter, we don't all go away all at the same time (unless of course you're French or Italian), Christmas is the one time of the year when everyone takes a break.
Even those who 'work' between Christmas and New Year (it should probably more accurately be described as 'going in') will not do anything to move problems or strategies forward - there are simply not enough people around to do anything proactive.
So Christmas is a unique collective psychological moment in time, and as such leaders should be taking advantage of this and exploiting the opportunity to communicate in a very special way with their managers and employees.
Let's examine what actually happens to our people over the Christmas break and analyse the psychological process (I hear you scream "No, let's not!", but we're not on holiday yet, so stick with it for just a moment longer.......)
These four steps are crucial enough for individuals, but the great thing about Christmas is that all our managers and employees go on this psychological sojourn at the same time, giving us a unique opportunity for a communication of immense power.
Let's look at each of the four steps in turn.
We mentally head for the hills
We all make a conscious decision to switch off and not to think about our problems until we're back in January. We communicate this to our bosses and colleagues, without guilt since its Christmas, and in doing so, we start to give ourselves proper breathing space and a true sense of calm for the first time in…….well for the first time in 12 months. It's incredibly therapeutic - the sense that, just for a couple of weeks, we've done all we can, and perhaps more importantly, that others will stay off our backs for a while, since they are also taking a break.
And so we head for the hills, to the sanctuary of our families, whom we've no doubt neglected for……….well for 12 months, and as we head off we are carrying a sub conscious judgement about our company. Are we heading off basically feeling like we're winning and that we're in the right company, or are we heading off feeling like we've had enough and that the company will not ever get it right?
We re-connect to our families
And we are welcomed back into the bosom of our families, with a sort of armistice on any resentments about our over-work in the past year, because it's Christmas. We help decorate the tree, we start playing games, we go shopping as a family. It's sad to say, but not only do we genuinely re-connect with our closest loved ones, we actually re-connect with human beings per se. I don't mean to imply that our work colleagues and peers are not human, but our corporations are so dominated by pressure on timescales, squeezed resources, over-optimistic expectations of results and the sheer amount of battling we end up doing, that we have probably spent the last 12 months feeling pretty isolated.
And so we spend a concentrated amount of time back in relationship with other people, and we are reminded of what is truly important to us. And it's not our work.
We talk about our work to people who care about us
And over the Christmas period we see friends and family that we've not seen for... well 12 months. People we love and people we respect: Uncle George who knows we work in management, but can never remember who for; Cousin Jane who knows we majored in business but still thinks we're an accountant or something; Kevin, our friend from schooldays who remembers who we work for, but who can never understand why our company can't offer a decent customer service.
And we find ourselves explaining what we really do; who it is we actually work for and what our company does. And the interesting thing about our explanations is the degree of defensiveness or advocacy they contain. As we explain who we work for to Uncle George, are we proud of our company, or do we find ourselves condemning? As we explain to Cousin Jane what we actually do, are we proud of where we are in our career, or do we find ourselves feeling like we should be further on? As we explain to our old friend Kevin about our company's actual customer service experience, are we proud or do we find ourselves defending the indefensible?
We make New Year's resolutions
And when the festivities and excesses of Christmas Day and Boxing Day are behind us, some of us make almost formal resolutions or set ourselves goals for the coming year. But even if we don't do this formally or too consciously, we will find ourselves sitting up in bed one morning chatting idly to our partners about our plans, maybe even our dreams, for the year ahead. We might speculate on the kids' schools or university choices, our potential for holidays, maybe that extension or new kitchen we've been planning. Inevitably, these conversations carry an unspoken energy about where we will be in our work. And even if we don't consciously think about changing job or changing employer, we are deciding as we think.
And so we return to work in a very different psychological state from when we left.
But the question is, are we returning with a renewed confidence and commitment to our work, or a new found openness to be attracted away by something better over the fence? Has our re-connection with humanity and our refreshment left us more committed to, or more detached from, our company?
Leaders must not leave this to chance!
How can leaders leave this crucial question to chance? If this is the psychological process that our managers and employees are going to encounter and navigate over the Christmas break, then as leaders we simply have to ensure that we send them away in the best possible frame of mind. So how do we do this?
Well, most leaders will issue a Christmas message of some sort - we just need to make sure that our Christmas message prepares our managers and employees for their Christmas contemplation, and leaves them already feeling more valued, more optimistic and more refreshed.
Constructing the perfect Christmas message
The perfect Christmas message needs to cover five points, as follows:
Current situation - an open statement about how things really are as we go into the new year, giving the very latest information we can. This ensures that our employees feel trusted and treated as adults who can take the truth
Competitive advantage - a positive and progressive comparison of how we are genuinely ahead of our competitors. This ensures that our employees have a new chance to realise that the grass might just not be greener….
Inherent strength - a confident statement about our value proposition, our genuine USP, our history, or even a key asset (such as a technology or market share) that we possess. This ensures that our employees are reminded that they work for an inherently strong company that they can be proud of
Opportunities for the future - an open statement about the opportunities or creative possibilities ahead of us all as we enter the new year, again giving confidence that this is the only place that our employees would want to be
Valued employees - finally a heartfelt and genuine thank you, given with real evidence of the difference that our employees' phenomenal efforts have made to the company. We truly could not do without them, and although we may not have shown this or expressed this for…….well, 12 months, we certainly want to express it now. This ensures that our employees know they are valued and that what they do makes a real difference and really matters
If we construct our Christmas message along these lines then we not only send our managers and employees away feeling better, more crucially we send them away equipped with energy and information they can use in their conversations with Uncle George, Cousin Jane and our old friend Kevin.
A Christmas message is not just for Christmas, it's for life
All this comes with a health warning however. In order to construct effective Christmas messages as outlined above, as leaders we need to put a huge amount of care into their crafting.
Many hundreds of years ago, as a young CEO running my very first company (of just 80 employees) I wrote my first Christmas message. It was quite short, very open and really heartfelt. However I didn't feel it was personal enough. After all, with only 80 employees, I knew them all as true individuals and I valued something special in each of them. So I found myself writing 80 individual messages as well. I bought 80 cards, with as Christmassy a theme on the front as possible, but blank on the inside. Then inside, on the left I handwrote my company message - the same message word for word handwritten 80 times! And inside on the right I hand wrote each individual name and then their personalised message.
To this day, this remains one of the most powerful things I ever did as a CEO.
But I had started something that I couldn't back out of. And this was fine until 3 years later when there were now 200 individual cards to write. So I didn't. As you can imagine the impact of my not doing what I had always done was huge. People wondered what was wrong; whether there was something I was hiding from them; why I didn't care any more.
So, handle with care. But do not leave it to chance.
Gareth Chick, is a director at business consultancy Spring Partnerships
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