Cameron, a leading global expert in positive organizational culture, considers the unintended … [+]
Center for Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University
Over the last weeks, we’ve turned to the leaders and scholars we most respect to seek insight on rising to the challenge of COVID-19 and the coronavirus with values-driven leadership. (For more from this series, see this link.) Today, we talk with Dr. Kim Cameron, one of the world’s foremost researchers and thinkers in the area of organizational culture and positive leadership. Cameron is a Professor Emeritus of Management and Organization at the University of Michigan, where he cofounded the Center for Positive Organizations.
When our conversation began, Cameron told us how this period of home isolation had given him the time to finish writing a book. He explained that while he was grateful for the time to write, it also raised an unexpected feeling: guilt. We begin the conversation there.
(This interview has been edited for length and readability. Find the full interview in audio form at this link. Please note, as may be evident in the conversation, this interview was recorded prior to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests. )
Jim Ludema and Amber Johnson: You acknowledged something I don’t see acknowledged enough, which is that there is a sense of guilt that comes with having stable jobs and health and secure finances. How are you thinking about that?
Kim Cameron: It’s true. For 10 years or so, I was doing research on the phenomenon of organizational downsizing. Over time, it became very clear that almost all organizations that downsize deteriorated in performance. This means not only did productivity and profitability go down, but morale and trust went down. Collaboration went down. Communication, especially any kind of positive communication, deteriorated and so on.
One of the most important things that occurred was something called “survivor guilt.” That is, those who kept jobs, those who had work, were feeling terrible because their good friends got laid off and lost their jobs. Their friends’ spouses had to go back to work; their children dropped out of college. They had to sell one of their cars. It really became difficult. The folks that survived were feeling guilty.
The other part of that’s interesting is there was also something called “survivor envy.” That is, those who kept their jobs said, “Fine, I have a job. But now I’ve got to do your work and my work too. I’m not going to be able to do either one as well as I used to. And I noticed that you’ve got lots of flexibility and freedom now that you didn’t have before and maybe a chance to do something much more exciting. Sometimes you even got a job that helps you flourish more or get paid more or earn a better title than you had here. And, doggone it, I’m stuck.”
Survivor guilt and envy. The real difficulty was that the survivors didn’t feel good either way. So, lots of attention had to be paid to those people I call survivors, those who kept their jobs and stayed in place. That was a difficult situation, which you would expect to be a celebration, but was not.
Ludema and Johnson: Based on that, is your advice to companies to do everything you can not to downsize, or do you feel you just need to go into it with your eyes open?
Cameron: Well, it’s such a dilemma. When I was studying these organizations, one of the organizations I studied in some depth was General Motors. At the time, General Motors had approximately 900,000 employees. They now have about 200,000 employees. Long, long before General Motors declared bankruptcy, they simply had to shed a lot of bulk in order to survive at all. They knew, that’s going to have to happen.
On the other hand, I studied organizations like Southwest Airlines. During the difficulty when 9/11 happened and the World Trade Towers came down, much like our current situation, Southwest found themselves in a situation where nobody flew. When ridership returned, it topped out at 80% of previous ridership levels. The economic model of the U.S. airline industry was set at approximately 86% seat fill rate. If you top out at 80%, you’re going to lose a lot of money, and so a lot of firms went bankrupt. I mean it was really difficult to survive. The same kind of thing is going to happen now.
Southwest had a very interesting strategy. They said, we are going to lay off no one. That is, no one will lose their jobs. The CEO in an interview said, look, we can’t continue to do this indefinitely. Of course not, but, he said, we’re willing to sacrifice, even sometimes revenues and profitability, in order to keep the jobs and keep people secure in their jobs because it’s going to create loyalty, a sense of trust, a sense of collaboration, a sense of ownership in this organization. And, we won’t be able to do that forever, but at least we’re willing to sacrifice money, and all kinds of other things, in order to keep that group employed.
Now you can say, well that’s nice because Southwest had hedged fuel prices, they had cash in the bank, all kinds of available resources. When confronted, the CEO said, you’re right, we did. But the reason we did was because we wanted to have sufficient resources to preserve the jobs of our people. In other words, the whole point of everything we’re doing is in order to be what they referred to as virtuous in our approaches to employees.
General Motors and Southwest; those are two completely contrasting or conflicting kinds of approaches. On the one hand, you’re going to have to shed employees. On the other hand, you can make big sacrifices in order to keep people; it pays off in the long run.
Part of the advice, I would give is, as much as possible, help people know how valuable they are. Sacrifice for their benefit. When they have to leave their jobs, make very certain that it’s a soft landing some place as opposed to, “Thanks a lot, but you’re out of here. No benefits, no severance, no anything. You’re gone.” Rather than that, a message that says, “We care deeply about you. Because we don’t have money to pay you, we’re going to have to shed employees. But, we’re going to do everything we can to make certain it’s a soft landing.”
Ludema and Johnson: I think that’s especially relevant in this season, and a very humane approach to what otherwise, at the scale of an organization that size, could feel impersonal.
Cameron: It’s true. It’s easy to live values when everything is going well, easy to treat people well. Easy to pay attention to engagement. It’s easy to say, we value our employees, we value our customers, and so on and so on. The real test always is the crisis. You know, are we actually going to live these values when it’s going to cost us a lot? When the pressure is on? When we have unfavorable reviews? Those are the tests that matter a lot.
I think the companies that emerge out of this crisis the best, in terms of reputation, revenues, customer loyalty, and so on, are going to be those that have done that very thing: sacrificed for employees, stayed very firm on their core values, not given up virtuous practices because it’s inconvenient.
–Revisit our column later this week for part 2 of our interview with Dr. Kim Cameron, where the conversation focuses on the role of gratitude in improving individual health during trying times. Find an audio version of this conversation at this link, and more stories like it here.