The tendency of some managers in a recessionary economy isto revert to a command-and-control style of leadership. This is risky business. Those managers risk creating a suboptimum work environment and driving out their top talent. Study after study provides evidence that employees perform best and stay longest when their bosses are respectful, listen to employees, and support high levels of engagement.

I understand why the command-and-control style increases when companies are laying off workers, closing plants, and reducing benefits. Under stress, human beings naturally perceive a restricted range of options. Under these circumstances they will do what they believe is easiest and safest within a limited range. For managers whose role models were command-and-control executives, that style emerges when they feel the stress of a situation with few good options. And the command-and-control, my-way-or-the-highway style is a defense against having to deal with the emotional side of work relationships, which, in a bad economy, can make managers feel vulnerable, whether they are aware of these feelings or not.  

Gill Corkindale, in her Harvard Business Review blog post titled, “Why Good People Skills Matter in a Recession”, offers excellent guidelines for managers who want an engaged and high performing workforce. One guideline that stands out for me is:

Ensure that you have good training and development programmes in place — these are a good investment for the future and will pay dividends when the organization has come through the recession. Coaching and mentoring also foster self-reliance and self-worth, which are important factors when it comes to keeping motivation high.

This is great advice. As I have written before, a poor economy is no time for companies to disregard the development of their employees. Attracting, training, and retaining talent will be the primary role of managers in the second decade of the 21st Century. First of all, many of the best employees are thinking about jumping ship as soon as the economy improves and other companies start hiring again. If you want to keep your top talent, you need to do something now. Secondly, companies are learning how to produce more with less people. This demands that every employee develop to their fullest. Third, learning must be continuous; the world is changing too fast for any employee to let learning stagnate. Fourth, many employees, especially those from the youngest generation of workers, are heavily motivated by the opportunity to learn and develop new competencies. To hang on to those folks, companies will have to provide high quality training, coaching, mentoring, and tools for self-directed learning.