On the Clock

When Your Department Tanks

The sports phenomenon of “tanking” happens off the court, too. How to stay motivated when your division loses.   

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve probably read or listened to some NBA or MLB commentator discuss “tanking”—when a team intentionally tries to lose. The theory behind it is a race to the bottom: the worse off you are, the better your draft picks for the next year. So, teams will trade off prize players to create space for pricey free agents or sign bad contracts or purposely lose game after game, all in an effort, the thinking goes, to make the strongest team possible in the future. 

Sounds like something that would only work in the world of sports, right?

Actually, not. The same thing can happen in business. Even though companies don’t have draft picks the way sports do—though hiring the best and brightest right out of school is a similar sort of gauntlet—firms still have their own form of tanking. They stop producing and marketing one product in favor of another. Or lay off hundreds of people in one department to get new talent for another division. Or change the work flow constantly, to the point where it’s difficult to decipher what’s working and what isn’t.

Individual and organizational interests don’t always align perfectly.

The result, when this business style of tanking goes right, is a stellar product or service that makes the company look smart and agile. When it goes wrong, the company crashes and burns. 

Regardless of the outcome, the process can create a slew of disengaged employees. “When we bring people into organizations, we try to align interests together,” says Mark Royal, a senior director at Korn Ferry. “But the reality is individual and organizational interests don’t always align perfectly.” 

Here’s how to stay motivated when your department or product isn’t the teacher’s pet, or is the target of tanking.

Probe your reactions.

If your department is in a down cycle at work or has fallen out of favor, it’s easy to jump on the negativity train that’s probably looming in the office. While negative talk can sometimes be helpful in terms of getting information, more often than not it’s filled with gossip and rumors.

So, before you get caught up in that talk, ask yourself why you’re feeling the way you are. Is it because you’re fearful of job security? Or you’re worried that the company no longer values your skills because it’s changing the platform on which you do your work? And in addition to the root cause of the uneasiness, ask yourself about the broader perspective, Royal says. Is this a temporary shift in focus or something that’s longer term?

Get the (realistic) facts.

One of the issues with tanking is getting a realistic understanding of the circumstances surrounding a business or initiative. Put another way: what are reasonable expectations for what the future holds? “Oftentimes, what we see take down an organization or a business is the unwillingness to accept facts in the face of failure,” says John Petzold, senior client partner and CXO Optimization lead at Korn Ferry. “You have to have the business acumen to understand the realistic state of the problem.” For the average worker, this means trying to understand why the organization did what it did. What was the rationale, from the company’s perspective, for making the change? 

Is this really about you?

Whenever change comes down the pipeline, it rattles much of the workforce; as soon as you hear about the move, you hear the grumbling. That’s because there are often information vacuums when things first begin to evolve as everyone finds their footing, Royal says. Instead of joining in on the grumbling (even if it temporarily feels like an act of comradery), ask yourself if you’re OK. Yes, we know this sounds super silly. But just considering such questions—Are you feeling personal pain? Is this change really going to affect you?—can help snap you out of the malaise.

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