Can you thrive on a sinking ship?

Josh, one of my kickstarter supporters for my Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds, asked this question.

My place of employment is closing. The problem is the mood is very somber and depressing. How do you work within that environment and not let it bring you down?

If you stand back, way, way back, the entire solar system is a sinking ship. We know the sun has just a few billion years left, and if we’re still stuck on planet earth, we’ll go up in flames with the rest.

Meanwhile, can we thrive here? Of course we can.

Whenever I hear of a group in trouble, or a project not going well, I think of the earth and the sun. If you frame a problem right, you can thrive anywhere. Even Sisyphus himself, according to Camus, had moments of joy here and there. I admit you can’t always thrive in terms of productivity, but you can thrive in spirit.

First, its when times are tough that leaders earn their pay. It’s easy to lead when everything goes perfectly. In some cases, a leader might be doing nothing at all, and ride on the waves of producvtity driven by the people who work for them. But when things go wrong, or there’s bad news, or the sun starts exploding, that’s when a leader earns their pay.

What goals can be set that people find interesting? What skills can people learn before the project is over? What sources of pride can be cultivated and directed at the remaining work? There are always ways to make the boring interesting, and the dull fun. It just requires someone who has authority to choose to use that authority to motivate and inspire.

I’m not suggesting denial. Everyone will process the end of a project or a company in their own way, on their own time. But for those who can find ways to stay motivated and excited about what they’re doing, they should be supported and encouraged to find ways to involve others.

Lets say there are 100 people on a project that’s ending. Everyone will be somber when it’s announced. But the following week, what if there are 5 people, working together, having fun, and being productive. The other 95 will start to notice, and many of them will want to join the 5, in spirit, if not in work. Not everyone will be capable of coming along, but you’d be surprised. If a key leader or two take up with the minority group, it can soon become much larger than people think.

At the end of the day we all face situations we can’t win and can’t control. The question then becomes: how will choose to face those situations? Like Sisyphus, choosing how to respond to what we can’t control might just be the most important and defining decision we ever make.

2 Responses to “Can you thrive on a sinking ship?”

  1. Been There

    Scott, perhaps because Josh’s question hits very close to home for me, I think your advice missed the mark. Yes, it’s always a good idea to take advantage of the circumstances in which we find ourselves and to look for learning opportunities and satisfaction in whatever we do, but that’s not enough here.

    In the intro, Josh says that his company is closing down. I went through a similar experience with a company where I had worked for over a decade and hoped to spend the rest of my working life. Here are a few things I learned:

    1. Keep up your standards, if only for your own sake. As the company was collapsing, many of my colleagues shut down emotionally. Work didn’t get done, relationships suffered both in the office and at home, and the poor quality of work and morale fed each other in a negative feedback loop. I tried to maintain self-discipline to keep myself focused on the tasks at hand, even on the worst days.

    2. Remember: everyone on your team will find work again, eventually. Being stuck in an environment where it feels like the sky is falling can be depressing. People act out and frustration comes to the surface. Try to keep in mind that all of you will be looking for work when the company does shut down, and a bit of kindness and professionalism now can pay off when you are looking for leads and references later on.

    3. Survivor guilt is real. If the company is going through rounds of layoffs, it is very common for the employees keeping their jobs to feel guilty for still being there while colleagues are unemployed in a terrible job market. Remember, the company is shutting down, all of you will be looking for work eventually.

    4. Practice some compassion. We started getting together for a coffee or a beer once a week with former members of the team who had been laid off. Those who were still working always paid. This can be a chance to vent frustration and for the laid off to stay in touch.

    5. Network like crazy! Find out who is hiring, let your professional contacts know what is happening and that you will be looking soon. If you are interviewing for new positions, emphasize that “going down with the ship” has strengthed your resilience and taught you resourcefulness in difficult situations.

    6. Look after yourself! If the company is promising severance or retention payments, make sure there is some protection for these funds. Ask for an escrow arrangement, or ask if the bankruptcy judge has authorized putting these funds in a protected account that will be sheltered from creditors.

    7. Take advantage of opportunities. My team had recently completed building out very nice new facilities. The furniture and equipment were sold to liquidators at pennies on the dollar. If you are looking to start your own business, this can be a great way to get access to gear you already know at a firesale price.

    Finally, many people at companies that fail see their deferred earnings disappear in a puff of smoke. Stock options and equity may become worthless. In some extreme cases (like Enron) even pension funds may be destroyed. Be realistic about how this will affect you. For some people, this means not buying the nice house or fancy car they had wanted. For others, it may change future plans: children’s college savings may need to be spent on groceries, retirement may be delayed, etc. This part really hurts, but just like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, you eventually need to get to acceptance. If you need to ratchet back your standard of living, do so early before cash flow and debt become serious problems.

  2. Alex Hagan

    The emotional contagion of productivity that you talk about rings true. In fact, studies have shown that both contentment and discontentment spread virally. Unfortunately, discontent is twice as contagious – but also has half the recovery time – as being content.


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