Recent rounds of corporate cost-cutting have left employees weary and wary. So many companies, having bought the luxury of being able to think about the future, are now looking for ways to re-inspire their staffs’ imagination.

It may seem a strange problem to have, for employees that survived various initiatives and have proven their worth, its tempting to think that employees now tasked with growth would be jumping at the bit. But I’ve had many recent experiences that disprove this. Don’t underestimate the power of the ‘self-preservation’ mentality that cost cutting induces. Remember anyone who had odd, unusual or money losing/high investment ideas probably got canned. Inviting your staff to participate in fresh ideation or ‘out of the box’ thinking sessions, may feel like inviting someone to their own funeral.

I’ve got a few suggestions (some light hearted!) on how to overcome this, but in part the answer depends on the way that your cost reduction programs are/were run. Let’s look at a few sources of corporate malaise that were prevalent:

Major Workforce Reduction Occurred (more than 10% of staff)

Symptoms – Involuntary severance occurred, last in – first out clauses on new employees, major benefits reduction

Cures – Scary stuff above! Your employees may fear the grim reaper who harvests without selection. To engage the lucky few left, you’re going to need to make them feel valued as individuals. Acknowledge their sentiments, but stress how much their creativity is needed to help prevent the company/unit from ever getting in that position again. This might be a time to engage on learning from other industries and companies who may have fallen to similar circumstances. Hindsight is 20/20 in this case, so looking back to what went wrong and brainstorming how to make things right on preventative level will make employees feel engaged that they can have a hand in steering the ship without fear of being tossed overboard.

Management style: Recognizing individuals (eventually teams) with small rewards for desired behaviors. Empathetic leadership, don’t be afraid to talk about the dark past. But make sure there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Major Cost Reduction in Expenditures and New Business Development

Symptoms – There’s a lock on the office supply cabinet, anything that was growth and exciting/new economyish is dead, no perks, the procurement department rules ruthlessly, no corporate strategy but operationally efficient are buzzwords de jour.

Cure – Free pens! (just kidding!). I once worked in a publishing company that was so stingy you couldn’t have Post-Its because they were too expensive. And that wasn’t a temporary situation. I had to go up two flights of stairs to ask/beg for a pen from a very imposing woman who dolled them out with such severity, I started to bring in my own pens…

Ok, procurement is probably the main power breaker in this situation, so its time to define the fuse box. Don’t start by asking for new investment opportunities, you’ll probably get blank stares, do ask for criteria to evaluate new opportunities. Looking back at the portfolio that you’ve red-inked, you might see opportunities for either a) splitting up old ideas into components and recombine the components b) new ways to evaluate the ideas so that they are not candidates for targeting again. Once you have some criteria defined, and people understand what the requirements are, they’ll be empowered to understand what will make a good opportunity, which will open the creativity floodgates.

Management style: Teams of domain expertise, empowered to make recommendations and implement changes

Retrenched to the Core/Heartland (in terms of products, services, customer segments)

Symptoms – Similar to the above, except that the oldest, most traditional functions or product lines hold all the cards. Anyone who wasn’t part of them is probably gone. Employees are most scared of risk taking. Conservatism is key, and the retrench doesn’t feel like a win, just a tight tourniquet that stemmed the bleeding.

Cures – Now is the time to take a good look at your competition, and importantly, potential competition. After a downturn is when the strongest new entrants emerge. Whatever industry you’re in, be prepared to think about its evolution. You also have some opportunity to really think about what is core to your customers and suppliers. Architecting a leaner, meaner well-run machine can enable you to judiciously invest in growth opportunities for where the core of the future will be.

Management style: if your cost structure allows, hiring a few new people in key positions wouldn’t hurt. Some management talent rotation would be good, new hires to stalwart positions, old hands to man the growth platforms. In addition, you’ll want to reward innovative ways to use ‘old’ assets, competencies and brands or latent capabilities. Ensure everyone knows the priorities of the organization (one of which should be to have focused growth, as well as be operationally efficient).

All of the above

Ouch and congratulations for turning around and surviving! Strategy is going to be your first consideration, and if innovation is a bright light that leaves your employees blinking, thinking about ‘strategy’ will be like seeing the sun for the first time. You’re probably not ready to launch on a full strategy assessment and program, so I’d recommend you start simply by outlining the key strategic imperatives to your organization. These imperatives (probably about 5-7) are things that you are going to use to frame decisions over the next couple of years as you embark on a path to growth. That’s all they are for. They won’t be a ‘real’ strategy for many people, but they are probably all your organization can really handle. After a few quarters of staying the course, you’ll be ready for new explorations into who, how and what your organization really wants to be.

In all of these situations – remember the old cliches about leadership starting from the top. If you are in a position to influence, lead by example. If you don’t personally change, and commit to a change, no-one else will do. Physician, heal thyself.