Companies have the right to demand that employees pay attention to their jobs — it is a base requirement for performance. However, as the recent incident involving two Northwest Airlines pilots illustrates, when other issues are pressing, employees lose focus.
As the story goes, the pilots were trying to figure out the new Delta scheduling system that now governs what flights they're assigned. (Delta acquired Northwest last fall.) In doing so, they overshot their destination by 150 miles and did not respond to repeated queries from flight controllers. As reported in the New York Times, pilots' lifestyles are affected by what schedules they work; every pilot works diligently to sign up for a schedule that best suits his or her needs.
Earlier this year, Northwest was correct in telling pilots to "Leave distractions about personal, corporate or other external issues outside of the flight deck." But this overlooks a basic element of human behavior; it is not easy for people, even trained professionals, to turn off issues that are bothering them.
Pending mergers, suspected layoffs, or even management changes at the top cause employees to focus more on the unknown than what they know — their jobs. I have seen far too many organizations paralyzed for weeks, even months, when uncertainty hangs in the air. It is management's job to get employees back to work. Here are some suggestions.
1. Raise the issue. Ignoring significant issues, like mergers or layoff rumors, is foolhardy. Employees think about these things, so you as a manager need to address them. Very often, rumors are rumors and can be punctured. That's the easy part, but when rumors are reality and organizational changes are pending, unease sets in. Understand that as a manager you cannot make the issue go away, but you can be front and center explaining what you know. You also must assure people that you will be the first to announce changes as soon as you know them (and are permitted to disclose them).
2. Allow people to digest the issue. Big changes, like a re-organization, affect people's lives. The prospect of change, or changing work styles and assuming new responsibilities, can be daunting. You need to give employees time to process the pending change. When possible, give them input into how they will do their jobs. This is not always possible, but dialogue is always an option. Very importantly, do not sugarcoat the situation; change may be painful for some.
3. Get people back to work. Now that you have discussed the issue, it's up to you as a manager to get people re-focused on the work. Conversation is not enough, you need to continue following up with people to ensure that they are performing as required. Some employees will re-focus in a heartbeat, others will require more persuasion as well as reassurance. That's when you need to shift into leadership mode and patiently listen, but firmly insist on productivity.
These steps do not overlook the fact that employees have to do their part. Their responsibility while at work is to do what management asks them to do. Issues affecting the fate of the company and their jobs may weigh heavily, but employees need to work as best they can. Only two of the thousands of Northwest pilots affected by the Delta scheduling system were caught being negligent; the overwhelming majority are figuring out the system while not flying. That is a testament to their professionalism as well as their ability to focus on the job at hand.