"A smart, proactive manager can assess the culture of the workplace and stop potential problems before they start" -Anna Wells

As I’ve surely mentioned in this column in the past, I am a rabid Milwaukee Brewers fan.

Those of you who follow baseball no doubt know that the Brewers had an interesting season—in a push for the playoffs, the team dropped some serious money and upcoming prospects in exchange for a Cy Young award-winning starting pitcher named CC Sabathia. With a comfortable lead in the NL wild card race, it looked like the team would be in the post-season for the first time since 1982.

For Brewer fans, this was a dream come true; we’d been through some very tough seasons, and this young, talented team was finally going to see some play-off time… But then they started to tank.

Halfway through September, the Brewers were in a state of collapse, having given up 11 games out of 14. Subsequently, Brewers upper management made a bold decision, which was greeted with equal parts applause and harsh criticism—they fired their manager, Ned Yost, with only 12 games left in the season.

Letting the skipper go lead to many different theories on the blogospheres and sports talk venues: Did upper management really disagree so strongly with Yost’s managerial style, or were they simply looking for a fall guy after a demoralizing stretch where the team blew a 5 1/2 game wild card lead? Still, others made the claim that Yost had “lost” the team weeks previous. This phrase really struck a chord. How did this leader lose his team? I’ll paraphrase one player who described it matter-of-factly: Everyone complains about their boss, and when you start losing, you begin to make excuses.

I find this parallel to be fairly interesting, considering global manufacturing might be described as on somewhat of a “losing streak” right now—and not for lack of talent, hard work, or ingenuity, but simply because of economic circumstances. It might be like playing baseball with your hands tied behind your back.

No plant manager wants a hiring or overtime freeze, least of all the elimination of existing jobs or other aggressive cost-cutting measures. The latest news has even suggested some companies are reducing their R&D spending, which no doubt will have long-term ramifications. The point is, things don’t seem to be getting easier— and as the management figure most intimately involved in day-to-day operation, you could wind up dealing with some serious employee anxiety.
So what is the solution? How do you keep your team from losing faith in you and the company? One of the harshest criticisms of Manager Yost was that he never addressed team problems as such—simply that a bad game was just a bad game. Maybe the loss of faith came because nobody else was fooled by a false sense of ‘everything will be fine; just keep playing.’

I’m not suggesting plant managers embrace the negative, or in any way validate the paranoia that has been percolating throughout this recession— just don’t be afraid to be real. Your employees are smart and perceptive; they know the state of the industry, so this is the time to address the real issues facing manufacturing, your facility, and your employees. If anything, dispelling rumors and fears by maintaining a strong presence throughout this crisis will do wonders. A smart, proactive manager can assess the culture of the workplace and stop potential problems before they start.

At the end of the day, you don’t want to be the coach who loses the team because they let bad morale and a tough environment get in their heads. The Brewers did wind up making the playoffs despite the September drama, and it’s my belief that there are a lot of mental variables that can make all the difference between winning and losing. Let’s make sure, as managers, that we know what they are and are not afraid to address them.

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