Let the Tough Times Roll! Three ways to make hay from turmoil, plus how to fight the bad stuff that happens in your organization when things start going wrong, as they're starting to.
By Geoffrey Colvin

(FORTUNE Magazine) – That which does not kill me makes me stronger" may have been the most fatheaded thing Nietzsche ever said--I guess he never flew from Bangkok to New York in a middle seat in economy--but in a general way he was onto something. As everyone knows but hardly anyone likes to say, suffering is good for you. And right now is an excellent time to remember that fact of life and see if we can't use it to our advantage.

If you aren't suffering yet, chances are good you will be before long. Corporate profits on the whole were down in the third quarter, their worst performance in seven years. Wall Street analysts forecast they'll be up a bit in the fourth quarter, but that's what they thought about the third quarter until it was almost over; by the time they figured out what was happening, the term "earnings forecast" looked like kind of a laugher. Asia is still in the tank, the Japanese government's economic rescue package looks DOA, and I hear worrisome things about pressure on China's currency, devaluation of which would cause even worse havoc in the region. Brazil is struggling desperately to avoid devaluation, but you'd be crazy to bet it'll succeed. J.P. Morgan is forecasting a U.S. recession next year. Meanwhile, what's your stock's multiple these days--15? 20? 25? Your company's earnings are probably supporting such a tall tower of stock price that they don't have to crumble to spark trouble; even a wobble will cause that tower to fall, and one way or another that will mean misery for you. If it hasn't already.

You've heard that every problem is an opportunity, and as tough times begin to close in, you can probably spot several ways to do something good for your company. You can do tactical things, like hiring talented people who are taking exit packages from high-class companies that have announced major layoffs, e.g., Texaco and Monsanto. Other talent can probably be hired away from certain companies that pay employees heavily in stock options; at outfits where the options are deeply under water, some people may be too discouraged to hang in. You can also squeeze vendors and try to sign them to long-term deals, while making your own sales contracts short term. You can even do semistrategic things like going for market share against competitors foolish enough to cut what they spend on advertising and marketing.

All those are smart moves. But keep your eye on the big picture: In tough times you can do things that will help your organization not just for the next few quarters but for years. Three stand out.

--Propose, consider, and take risks. Stop me if you've heard this: "We're not afraid to take intelligent risks, and we will never punish those who in good faith..." Okay, you've heard it, and you know nobody believes it. Fact is, we may be hard-wired not to believe it. The behavior that kept us breathing among the mastodons 50,000 years ago was to avoid risks except when seriously threatened, and that's the tendency most people still carry with them. That's why leaders work up speeches about "burning platforms" when they want people to take risky courses--to make them feel threatened. But it's a tough sell.

Not now. One great thing about difficult times is that they make our hard-wiring work in our favor. People really do feel threatened. That makes this a good time to launch gambles you believe in. It also means that others in the organization, feeling threatened, are more likely to think up risky, innovative moves that could be worthwhile, so it's important to make sure you find out about them. And remember that those above you also feel threatened, so now could be an excellent time to propose that crazy idea you just know would succeed. Your audience is receptive.

--Evaluate people. It's conventional wisdom that performance under stress gives the truest measure of a businessperson's (or any person's) character and ability, so tough times ought to be revealing for sure. But researchers say one aspect of behavior is especially telling. One of the best predictors of a businessperson's effectiveness--in any circumstances--is whether his response to trouble is to place blame or to embrace the new reality and seek solutions. We all like to think we would make the right choice, but in truth it isn't easy; psychologists consider it well established that people much more readily blame others for a problem than take action to fix it. Interestingly, those who avoid this temptation not only do better for their organizations but do better for themselves. Researcher Andrew Baum and colleagues studied how people living near Three Mile Island were affected by stress after the nuclear accident there in 1979. Conclusion: "People who accepted more responsibility for what had happened to them after the accident, rather than blaming others for all their troubles, seemed to do better." This is a case in which blaming others would have been as fully justified as it ever could be.

--Build people. Business trouble can be one of the most effective developmental experiences in a person's life, says Russ S. Moxley, who has studied such things at the Center for Creative Leadership. But it isn't necessarily. That all depends on how the organization deals with mistakes. If the company's response is support--we understand what you were trying to do, it was worthwhile, it didn't work, let's figure out why--then there is a chance the person will learn and grow. If the company's only response is punishment, there's virtually no chance, and the employee probably becomes less valuable to the organization. The employee and the company both gain as long as the employee learns the appropriate lesson--even if it is that he or she just doesn't have a particular ability. Indeed, this can yield some of the most valuable benefits. Says Moxley: "The acceptance and recognition of limitations, followed by an effort to redirect oneself, are characteristic of successful people in general."

So much for the overlooked upside of tough times. You also have to address the organizational downside, which is that in times of stress and great uncertainty, painful as it is to admit, most people don't reach into unplumbed depths of resourcefulness and perform brilliantly.

They're more likely to go to pieces.

"Substandard performance by decision-makers in crisis situations is particularly common," notes Daniel Frei of the University of Zurich. What goes wrong? Psychologist James Thompson has spotted three ways people mess up decisions when the pressure's on, and tell me you haven't seen every one where you work: They obsess on insignificant problems and ignore what's important; their perceptions become distorted; and they insist on proving that their mistaken hypothesis about the situation is actually correct.

On top of that, they can become frozen with anxiety. Richard Zeckhauser, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, says, "People abhor decision-making under significant uncertainty because they'll look dumb." That's a bigger problem than it may seem. Looking dumb--or thinking that's how you look--can trigger a downward spiral of deteriorating performance. "I'm a serious bridge player," says Zeckhauser, "and I've noticed that people do worse after bad outcomes." No reason they should, of course: "They should forget about it--it's sunk costs." But it happens anyway, and not just in bridge.

The danger is that with the global economy in turmoil, lots of people in your organization are caught looking as if they made big mistakes. Says Zeckhauser: "People making decisions now are already charged with errors--after all, they got into Malaysia or wherever." Never mind that virtually no one imagined that the region's economy would collapse. The critical question is whether the organization now supports those decision-makers or responds only with disapproval, which may well lead to worse decisions down the road.

How to beat the pernicious effects of high stress in an organization is no secret. The best and clearest explanation comes from studies of the military, where stress is worst and the results most serious. From the World Health Organization, here's how soldiers avoid combat-stress reactions; it's easy to see each point's parallel in a business setting. Soldiers don't suffer the effects of combat stress when they feel in control, have strong group cohesion, trust the commanders, have high motivation, feel well armed and protected, feel well trained, and have a reliable medical corps.

In other words, it's largely a matter of the organization's culture. Of course, in times like these you wish your outfit had had the right culture for years. If it has, congratulations. If it hasn't, well, don't let your failure to establish it long ago stop you from doing so now.

It's hard work, but here's a case where it won't kill you, and it will make you stronger.