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Transformational Leaders Overcome a Traditional Employee Survival Technique!

Written by Terri Wallin

In 1986 the second of a series of movies, “Aliens”, was released with Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Henn as main characters. Carrie played the role of a child who survived in the space station after her family had been killed by aliens. She survived because she lived and crawled through the vent system.

Watching employee behaviors over the years, the survival technique Carrie used in the movie is similar to survival behavior in organizations. Leaders come and go and depending upon their leadership styles and techniques in handling corporate crises, employees are either taught to be fearful or empowered. If fearful, survival becomes each employee’s goal.

Businessman crawling under his deskCrises happen in organizations and often present as a financial threat. Leaders often use drastic measures to compensate for the threat. One of the most popular leadership methods is mass lay-offs. There are variations of lay-off techniques, but inevitably it leads to a fear-based culture. As a result, employees become very adept at surviving. The longer employees stay in an organization the better their survival skills become.

One colleague, who had been in an organization for over thirty years, shared with me her vivid memories of survival techniques. She described times when employees literally hid under their desks when organizational times were financially tight. Each new leader would attempt to “turn the organization around” with a financial strategy that would send a ripple of fear throughout the organization. The fear continued until s/he left and the next leader arrived. The fear-based culture continues depending on the leader’s style and techniques used in managing crises.

Why do executives use dramatic methods to manage crises, particularly related to financial strategies? Leaders approve new programs, new labor costs and related expenses throughout the year, so why should a financial crisis be a surprise? And why isn’t a crisis avoided?

Likely one contributing factor is that typically there is not a good management system in place to keep a handle on expenses real time. The behavior to approve an expense without knowing the impact continues until there is a financial crisis, which drives the need for dramatic measures. Unfortunately such repeated measures usually result in decreased productivity and a negative work culture.

How do you prevent this repetitive drama? It starts with a transformational leadership approach. A transformational leader owns problems and accepts responsibility for organizational crisis. S/he has an innate ability to empower employees. As employees lose fear they work hard to help the organization thrive. The following methods are effective in empowering employees and changing a fear-based culture.

  1. When there is a financial or other crisis in the organization, take ownership for expense management and for your part in the crisis
  2. Prevent financial surprises. Implement a daily method for managing cost for each management level within the organization.
  3. Build a system to flex expenses with sales or service volume increases or decreases.
  4. Ensure new managers know the expectations and methods for daily cost management
  5. Hold yourself and your management team accountable for managing the business real time
  6. Educate employees on financial drivers of the organization and their part in controlling cost
  7. Involve employees in coming up with cost reduction ideas and give them full credit when you select one of their ideas.

Employees want to see their organization thrive. The reality is that most employees often outlive the leader, just as Carrie Henn did in the movie with the aliens. Unless the leader is skilled at bringing the employees out of the “vents”, the employees will continue to protect themselves until that leader leaves and another arrives.

Have you reviewed your patterns in managing financial crisis? Do your strategies involve employees in solutions or are employees just a target? If you need help to assess or shift your culture, we can help!


  1. Well said, Terri! Plus, your picture is spot on. It’s hysterical and also very true.

    My favorite point was how important it is for leaders to take ownership for our part of the crisis.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful and thought-provoking insights.

    Comment by Jackie Nagel on December 4, 2013 at 7:45 am

  2. I sure enjoyed your blog…boy, could we share a few real time experiences…I have never understood why truth has to be forever protected or watered down, and restraints placed upon the transfer of information, which would have enabled employees to better manage their financial case management goals and expectations. So much could have been gained! Thanks for being out there and working so hard!

    Comment by Right on Teri...Carol hersman on February 25, 2014 at 10:20 pm

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