Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/25/2008 11:43:04 AM ET 2008-08-25T15:43:04

With so many companies cutting their rank and file workforces to the bone because of the tough economy, it seemed inevitable that some firms would eventually get to the fatty middle — middle management that is.

Late last month, General Motors announced it was targeting white collar jobs in its latest round of layoffs, and the Wall Street Journal reported those cuts would mainly hit middle managers.

They get paid more than the rank and file, but they’re not at the top of the corporate food chain. These factors create a precarious situation for middle managers, and things could get worse if the recession drags on.

So, now is a good time for supervisors with one underling, or one thousand, to start making themselves indispensable to those folks in the corner offices.

But how do you do that? Wouldn’t it be great if you could unlock the secrets of how the bigwigs decide who will get the ax?

That’s why I decided to interview Janet Banks, a former top executive who worked for some of the biggest banks in the financial sector, and who oversaw more layoffs than she’d like to remember.

Banks co-authored a Harvard Business Review article that’s published in the just released September issue titled: “How to Protect Your Job in a Recession.” In it, she provides her observations of middle management layoffs and why some supervisors were able to survive.

“I had to go through seven rounds of cuts at one company and I had to make the final decisions on who stayed and who would go,” she explains.  “What I learned is that you can’t control what people are going to do but you can control how you’re going to be perceived.”

Her decision to write the article, and in essence open up her layoff diary, came after a friend who was in her fifties and was fearful of layoffs asked how she could protect her job. Banks wrote a long email to her friend detailing what she’d seen in her career and that became the germ of the article.

One of the key characteristics of a manager that tended not to get cut, she says, was that they remained upbeat and never acted like it was the end of the world.

“The ability to have a positive attitude is critical as opposed to a person that’s so fearful that they take everyone in the downward spiral with them,” she notes. “You’re in good shape if you can project positive energy, and look at what is most relevant in terms of the work at hand.”

Another big plus is being flexible, she stresses.

During a downturn in the business cycle, she maintains, priorities of a business can change dramatically. That means you have to be ready to shift gears and look beyond the goals you set during up times.

“Forget about your pet project that was funded months ago. No one cares about it anymore,” she says. Even though there may be a lot of panic and confusion in the air, a good manager will take time to figure out where the priorities have shifted and get on board fast.

Middle managers that think they are high and mighty could also end up being shown the door. Banks says nothing will irk the higher ups more if you act like certain jobs or tasks are beneath you, especially if the person that handled those things was downsized and there’s no one left to do them.

For example, Banks says she always gave kudos to “those people who could move in and out of more high profile work and also wouldn’t mind or pout about having to work overtime collating booklets. It was the no-job-is-too-big-or-small approach.”

There’s also a lot to be said about humor and making yourself lovable!

Banks and her co-author Diane Coutu, a fellow at the American Psychiatric Institute and a Review senior editor, are not suggesting that managers “morph into Jerry Seinfeld,” they write. “Being congenial and fun isn’t about bringing down the house. Just don’t be the guy who’s always in a bad mood, reminding colleagues how vulnerable everyone is. Who wants to be in the trenches with him?”

It’s all about having the right people on your side during the downsizing war.

Executives making the difficult decisions to lay off workers and managers are in need of help themselves. “Try to help the leader defend your department,” the authors write. “If the boss is working on a restructuring plan and asks for ideas, offer some realistic solutions.”

A manager should also have the ability to “unite and inspire” those around them, Banks maintains, including their own supervisors.

Banks pointed to Michael Kradas, a former middle manager she supervised at FleetBoston Financial during layoffs there, as an example of a manager that did this well. The authors refer to him as Isaac in the article.

“In the face of low morale, the head of human resources asked Isaac, a learning and development VP, to help revive people’s spirits, improve communications, and stir up some fun. Isaac quickly pulled together a small team of volunteers and created a live radio show that engaged even the most cynical members of the organization.

"It included a soap opera that kept staff at all levels laughing and waiting for the next episode. The show gave executives a unique platform to share information such as quarterly financial results and changes in the organization’s structure. It did so much to improve morale that as a result Isaac landed the job he wanted — head of management and leadership development for the company.”

Kradas, aka Isaac, is now working as director of training for a non-profit college tuition company called American Student Assistance.

I asked him how he was able to keep a positive attitude and actually end up inspiring the people around him.

“There really was no grand plan,” he admits.

“If you’re willing to be laid off your chances of being laid off decrease because you gain a certain sense of confidence,” he explains. “I saw a lot of good people self-destruct and crack under the pressure during layoff.”

If you only concentrate on protecting your job, he adds, you’ll be out of touch with what’s happening around you. “People want flexibility and a positive attitude during layoffs,” he stresses. “It’s what this crazy world demands.”

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