Harvard Business Review

How to Keep Your Job in a Downturn


Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 23, 2011 11:04 AM

Are you getting whiplash from following the stock market the past couple of weeks? You’re not alone. Few people are having much fun on this roller coaster ride. In our previous post, we discussed what managers can do to keep their organizations on the right track in times of economic panic. Here, we offer advice for individual contributors. If that’s you, we realize that you may feel particularly powerless as your organization’s future begins to seem more perilous. But there are three actions you can take to exert power over your own work life. They may not only improve how you feel; they may also boost your chances of keeping your job.

Support the progress of your team. When we analyzed the daily work diaries that we had collected in our research, we discovered that people were most engaged in their work and felt happiest on the job on those days when they experienced progress in the work—even if the progress had been made by their team, rather than themselves. This progress principle suggests that you should devote a portion of your day to helping teammates who may be having difficulty, mentoring someone who has undeveloped potential, or guiding the team to diagnose problems in the work. As your team makes progress, you will likely experience an improved inner work life—more positive emotions, stronger intrinsic motivation for the work itself, and more favorable perceptions of your team, its managers, and the organization. And, as the team has more success, it will become increasingly valuable to the organization—improving job security for of all of you.

Support the people on your team. People who don’t like or trust each other rarely perform well as a group, likely because their motivation is not channeled productively. In our study, teams did better as they developed stronger bonds of camaraderie, mutual respect, and reciprocal emotional support. If you treat your coworkers well, their enhanced inner work lives will likely uplift you, as well, by the well-documented emotional contagion effects that can ripple through groups. Here, from a diary in our research, is an example of a supportive incident that lifted the spirits of everyone on the team: “Our teammate whose father is in the hospital returned for the day. It was good to see her, and it gave all of us the chance to fuss over her a little bit. We are such a good team!!”

Make progress every day on your most important work. We have advised managers to facilitate their subordinates’ ability to make meaningful progress every day on the work that matters most to them—even if that progress is a small win, an incremental step forward. The reason is that even small wins can lead to strong surges in inner work life. Because they are much more feasible than quantum-leap breakthroughs, small wins can regularly feed inner work life—even as they advance the project toward its ultimate goal. You can apply the small wins principle to your own work life. Even when you face a sea of uncertainty on the job—maybe wondering how you can possibly get everything done, or worrying about whether you will even have a job—you can experience uplift, and maintain good performance, by focusing at least some time every day on making progress in your most important work.

One of our research participants, by sheer force of will, took the threat of downsizing in her organization and turned it into opportunity for herself. Even as she sent resumes out for new jobs, she maintained her determination to do the best job possible for her team and maintain her own self-respect: “I feel better today … in 45 days we will all know our fate and then we can get on with our lives one way or the other … the outcome of all this is really out of our control … I’m trying to concentrate on what IS in my control, by doing my job.” She continued to do good work, maintained her sense of progress, consistently performed well—and never did lose her job.

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