How to keep anxious IT workers in the fold

After years of layoffs and outsourcing, reassurance is key, says Judith M. Bardwick

Over the past decade, thousands of IT professionals lost their jobs to layoffs and outsourcing, so it's little wonder that many of those who chose to remain in the IT field have grown distrustful of their current employers. But for IT managers, there are steps they can take to build trusting relationships with workers who may be eyeing the door -- and other opportunities, according to Judith M. Bardwick, a management consultant in California. Bardwick, the author of One Foot Out the Door: How to Combat the Psychological Recession That's Alienating Employees and Hurting American Business, talked with Computerworld about how to reassure nervous workers.

Given the volume of layoffs and outsourcing that's occurred in the last 10 years, can managers truly build an environment of trust with employees?

You can. But the basic rule has to be an open-book policy. It doesn't mean total transparency, because sometimes that can backfire. If you look, for example, at the lists of the top companies to work for, in the years where there is massive downsizing, some percentage of those companies have also downsized. But they were transparent in the buildup to it, keeping employees up to date on the factors that were leading up to the layoffs.

How can managers start to build that foundation of trust?

Management is often called middle management and for good reason. Middle management often has a better sense of what's going on. If you're in an executive position as I have been, you're so removed from day-to-day operations that you don't have a feel for what's going on on the ground. They [middle managers] have to be able to lean on the power and influence of higher-ups in the ranks. Then, [you must understand] that what you do with your subordinates is a microcosm of what you do in the universe, characterized by mutual respect and trust. You are personally transparent -- you do what you say you're going to do, you don't play favorites, you don't lie and you convey a sense of trust. If you are not respected by someone, you are not going to respond to them with a sense of trust.

Some IT workers say they feel like replaceable machine parts, since so many of them or their peers have had their positions outsourced or contracted out. How can managers help these people feel valued?

Let me start with something that's in a previous book I wrote. You can't promise people the kind of security that employees had before 1980. But I highly recommend that organizations try to have conditional commitment. That means employees are expected to keep their skills cutting edge. That's the employee's primary responsibility. The organization has to need the skills this employee brings to bear and the organization needs to be able to pay that person. If those conditions are met, that would go somewhat toward allaying certain levels of anxiety.

How do you enable people not to feel like disposable, interchangeable widgets?

First, people are not seen as costs; every employee you want to keep is seen as an asset. You respond to people as individuals because their performance has entitled them to that. I've had many managers say to me that [they've] never recognized people because [they] never needed to be recognized. That's a fundamentally bad practice. When praise is in order, you praise. This is not rocket science. Too many managers move into management because organizations only have one ladder for upward mobility and the perks and powers that go with moving up. The job of the manager is to manage the people who do the work. You can't put someone in place as a manager who is fundamentally ill-suited to the role. Are you a people person? Can you relate to people? Or are you more comfortable relating to things?

Can some of those people learn interpersonal skills?

Yes, but it's hard work. You have to choose people for management who are trainable in terms of relating to people. You need two ladders for upward mobility. One for managers and one for people with problem-solving skills, and you shouldn't force those people into management if that's the only way they can move up.

How do you communicate that to people as a manager?

You need to pay attention to people. Since this is a relationship grounded at work, you have to pay attention to how people are doing at work. This is not the annual review. This is the continuous feedback that a boss/mentor provides to subordinates where you are continuously helping people to do better. The relationship between a boss and worker is akin to a teacher with a gifted student. It's good for the organization, but it's even better for the individual. That's the best mind-set you can have.

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