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'We will prevail but none of us know when...'

As featured in the Retail Talent Blog in Retail Times - July 2012

If Mervyn King is right, and five years into the recession we are not yet half way through it, what challenges does this present for retail leaders and their people? As early as 2005, commentators were talking about ‘high noon on the high street’, based on the twin threats of reduced consumer spending and on-line competition, so for retailers it feels like a very long slog already.

Therefore, a key question leaders are currently grappling with is how to maintain staff morale. Many of them have been communicating a ‘hang in there’ message over the last few years, hoping – understandably - that things will get better. But if the light at the end of the tunnel is invisible, or at best tiny, what can he/she say and do to promote a more positive, upbeat mood?

Studies show that we are predisposed to struggle for survival far longer if we are offered even the faint prospect of rescue, suggesting that hope galvanises and energises in the face of adversity. However, where hopes are repeatedly raised and dashed over a sustained period, this can prove to be debilitating, to both morale and wellbeing.

So what is the answer? Jim Collins (Good to Great) comes closest to providing a blueprint for leaders in difficult circumstances when he describes the Stockdale Paradox, named after Jim Stockdale, the US fighter pilot who spent many years in a Vietnamese POW camp. Although in solitary confinement, he communicated with his men by tapping out codes on the pipe-work, disseminating a message best summarised as ‘we will get out of this, but don’t expect to be home by Christmas, or Easter, or even next year’.

So, as well as rehearsing a ‘we will prevail, but none of us know when’ mantra, what else can leaders do to help their people through this prolonged recession? Studies of survival psychology, for example, where planes have crash-landed in the wilderness, tell us that those who survive do so because they quickly adjust – they recognise they are in a new reality, and immediately take personal responsibility for their own survival. Those who freeze, bury their heads in the sand, or give up, tend to perish. So leaders need to be constantly alert to the changing external market environment, and ensure they communicate this internally, helping employees understand what they can - and must - do to ensure business survival, and their own job security.

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