How to Kill Your Successful Business In Five Easy Steps: Step 3

For those just joining us, this is a series. There’s a series of links at the bottom of this post, so you can start at the beginning if you like.

Step 3: Kick Morale In The Teeth

When times get tough, the tough get going. But actually, as a worker, when times get tough ion a way that looks like they’re not going to get better, it doesn’t matter what the tough do: it’s the smart that you want to keep an eye on. And when times get irrevocably tough, the smart invest their energies on where it will pay the most dividends.

There is a human side to killing a business, and it has everything to do with how people feel. Yes, emotions, feelings — those strange, sticky things down in our guts — are very important for a business, because for the workers within it this is what drives the machinery of work.

It also drives the machinery of flight (as in to flee, not as in to fly, though my own flight ultimately involved flying across an ocean). As soon as it became apparent that financial problems — serious ones — were on the horizon, and that we wouldn’t be told until the last minute, I started putting feelers out for a new job, since at first it was just a lot of talk about hard times, about sticking together as a family… which, in a family business, means you’re likely to end up out in the cold when the really hard times kick in. The people in the office who knew stuff I didn’t — who saw the payroll figures, who were seeing the sales reports, and whatever, started whispering grim things, advising everyone start job-hunting as soon as possible.

Then our PR woman, Sue — who was really good at her job — left for a position at the CNIB (Canadian national Institute for the Blind). By then, we (non-family members) had started going for lunch in groups, commiserating about how things were going, as of course the problems began to bring out all sorts of in-group/out-group weirdness within the company. Remember, it was a family business, and blood was basically what determined who was in or out.

But the morale kick didn’t come when Sue left. She’d been really nice about it, really assured everyone that the reason for her leaving was not the stuff going on at the company, at least in public.

No, the kick in the teeth to morale came a little later. It was when our coworker and friend Astrid, who basically held together the non-family staff — constantly encouraging us, saying it wouldn’t be so bad, giving us a sympathetic ear when we were stressed out by the impending collapse — was fired for “agitating” everyone. This was a shock, as she’d been an excellent worker, and with the company longer than anyone. Yes, she’d long been part-time. Yes, she had primarily been testing and that was something others could fill in on in her absence. But she was irreplaceable as a member of the team; to be honest, she was the heart and soul of the staff, the smiling face, the positive attitude. Her being fired — much more, being fired for “making problems in the office,” smacked of everything going wrong.

It was, in fact, a brilliant move, if our CEO’s goal was to kill the company. Nothing could have destabilized morale more than firing Astrid. And an added source of dismay for those of us who heard both sides of the story was how Astrid reported feeling it was primarily because she’d grown apart from the “project manager” — the daughter of the CEO — and over a falling-out that had occurred between the two of them and a mutual friend, over some sort of betrayal, a boyfriend-theft or something I cannot remember but which had nothing to do with work at all.

That was really the beginning of the end. Astrid had kept people laughing and smiling through the occasional crisis-call weekends when we had to test software, through the frustrations of being on the outside — she was too — and through the anxiety of working in a place that seemed ready to collapse. To see her fired, that was too much. It was a drawing of lines, and nobody mistook what it meant.

From what I recall, by this point everyone was looking for a new job, and with some vigour, as well.

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