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My district manager has informed me that one of the regional offices may be closing with one possibility being the office that I manage. Final decisions as to which office is closed will be based on performance through the end of the year. I've been told that I cannot inform my employees of this possible closure. How can I strongly motivate my sales team and the rest of my employees to try and put their best foot forward so as to avoid potential layoffs within our branch?

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    I assume that there is no budget to create actually meaningful incentives? – Tymoteusz Paul Jun 23 '20 at 20:40
  • Not really, I can fund some minor initiatives and have authority to expense things like pizza parties or something similar, but there is nothing allocated beyond their usual commission for additional sales or work. – Spotted_Flamingo Jun 23 '20 at 20:42
  • If it increases sales or productivity then our branch's numbers would be better which would work in my favor to defend why we should remain open and they should close the other branch. The motivation alone won't sway their decision but the results will. – Spotted_Flamingo Jun 23 '20 at 20:53
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    @Spotted_Flamingo Have you pointed that out to the people who made this call? You might point out that it incentivizes all managers to ignore the "don't disclose" request... – Lilienthal Jun 24 '20 at 8:56
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Lilienthal Jun 24 '20 at 13:41
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I can't really advise you on what to do as the devil is in the details. Instead, I will give you some questions to think about that could help you.

I've been told that I cannot inform my employees of this possible closure.

1. Could you start a rumor about that?

Do you wish you could inform them? There are numerous ways to inform people without being traced as the source. One strategy would be to send anonymous letters to random staff with updated LinkedIn profiles (in your office pick the chatty ones) at several regional offices (including some which your district manager does not manage). If you can, have them sent from the city where corporate HQ (not district HQ) is. Bonus points if you can have the letters sent from there on a day where you are very publicly in the office.

Your employees will handle the rest through the office gossip network.

The one downside to this is assuming that people will stay. Trying to prevent the ship from sinking makes little sense when the same effort could probably build a lifeboat, especially for the better employees.

2. Could you leverage perverse incentives to skew the numbers?

There are a lot of ways to count financial performance and it is very common for companies and employees to fiddle with them according to whatever perverse incentive exists. One company cared about top dollar contract value at the time the contract was written. Salespeople responded by selling enormously bloated contracts with all sorts of expensive nonsense and later removed the nonsense from the contract. They got the customer to agree to this by savaging the profit margin.

Others billed revenue as soon as it hit the account, so the salespeople billed full price and negotiated large rebates later.

Others billed revenue by year of service provided, so the accountants would bill a 5-year contract for goods as having one very expensive year and the other 4 years were free. If the customer canceled, it was rebate time.

If profitability is a metric, could you game your expenditures? If the decision date is year end, pay all invoices from October onward in January.

^ All of these things have been done at publicly traded companies.

Giving your sales team a seminar on what exactly matters and what doesn't when it comes to performance evaluation may be sufficient.

If you sell a tech product and having more features would help you sell more, it would be time to take out a large sub-prime technical debt loan.

This isn't motivating them as such, but it is focusing on playing the game as a game, which is often enough. Emphasis on the "importance of meeting these metrics" could also let you hint at the stakes.

3. Do you think that performance actually matters or are you slated for closure anyway?

I had a friend who was part of the process of doing a layoff. They told this to the employees who were going to be let go, but did not tell the ones who they wanted to keep. The reason was to get a pile of extra work out of their lower performers instead of sending top performers running for new opportunities. The mentality was to use them up, burn them out, and then send the problem out the door.

One manager saw the writing on the wall and spent the next three months helping all her staff get out the door. Helped them with things like emptying the benefits program, making sure they got all their retirement account matches, used up their educational training allowances to help some of them reskill, told them that they could use office time for appointments, interviews, proactively offered recommendations, etc.

If competing is not realistic, the solution is to prepare to abandon the ship early and in an orderly fashion. Perhaps as far as you are concerned the company is a wrecked ship, to be emptied for provisions before building your rafts to sail away.

4. Could you just slash everything that doesn't boost the metrics that matter?

In software development, there are things that management does not value unless something goes badly wrong. Things like security and reliability. Is this a bad idea long term? Yes. Is it likely to be a problem within 6 months? You would need to make a judgment call on that, but it is not a definitive yes.

In sales, perhaps you turn it into a contest. That would cannibalize team cohesion and potentially damage client relationships long term, but if it gets the short term result, that is potentially worth it.

Or maybe you spend a lot of time on existing client relationships. Slash it. Perhaps you lose them down the road, but if you need to perform in December, it matters less whether they walk out the door in February.

5. Could you just go on about key performance metrics ad nauseam in regular meetings?

If you have a weekly team meeting, just talk about the performance metrics all the time. Employees tend to do whatever it is management seems to want, so they will figure out their own way to get there.

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  • +1 However, the issue with #2 and #4 is that if you succeed in convincing the management to keep you, it will be you who has to deal with the fallout from those short-term tactics. – TooTea Jun 24 '20 at 12:36
  • @TooTea true, but they have destroyed their alternative, so there is more time to fix things. – Matthew Gaiser Jun 24 '20 at 16:03
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Joe's question really puts a laser focus on the key point:

Do you think that a short-term motivation will sway the district manager's layoff decision?

Layoffs tend to follow the kinds of performance that directly ties to earned revenue. Departments that make money tend to be held (provided they are profitable) and departments that tend to save against losses tend to get let go first.

Before you can get a concept of how to motivate the teams to increase performance, you need to fully understand the kind of performance that would be managed. If that performance is money (and it usually is) some departments have a limited means to alter their profitability.

There is a very high chance that the team isn't positioned to alter their performance, and the comment "based on performance through the end of the year" might be included to soften the blow. After all, they could be talking about stock performance, and a software development bug-fixing team probably won't have much ability to control that performance in a positive manner.

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  • Classic "Profit Center/Cost Center" problems. At high level Financing decisions, you always increase your profits and cut costs, no matter how low the costs are, and I'm sure it isn't $0. – Nelson Jun 24 '20 at 4:28

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