Happiness Amongst Dying Unicorns

Some companies still crush it while the markets crumble around them.

If you read anything about the startup and tech world these days, you would have most certainly noticed the predictions of a Unicorn apocalypse. If there is such a thing as an actual unicorn (and there is) then they are ancient and have survived more than a few economic downturns (Egypt, Rome, The Dark Ages, Seinfeld ending). This one will be no different. Maybe we should just stop and study the real thoroughbreds out there instead of being so “horn-struck”.

The companies we should be focusing on have what it takes to handle the good times and the more challenging ones. They see opportunity where others see excessive risk and doubt. A recent Techstars blog post suggests, “the very best entrepreneurs don’t pay much attention to the doom and gloom everyone else is paralyzed by”.

I agree. Here’s why.

When the news is all about a looming financial crisis, the question becomes for most senior leaders, “How do I keep my employees performing and still have them go home happy, then comeback with enthusiasm into the office the next day?”

As a CEO of a rapidly growing company, I am constantly assessing the following:

  • Do the same great performers keep performing during the down times?
  • Do my sales and service teams still wow our customers?
  • Does anyone have a cloud over his or her heads that they can’t shake?

The first thing we should all understand is that negative stress that is created by fear, is the enemy of both productivity and happiness. Actually that should be the second thing. The first thing should be that we can help people and companies shore up the psychological skills that allow them to handle more stress. Beyond that, we need to offer ways to think more positively to keep their performance level up no matter what the external financial cycle happens to be.

At Plasticity Labs we call them the Workplace HERO traits and while they are exceptionally powerful during good times, they tend to shine a little brighter on the darkest days. During times like these, the specific character traits that people and companies need to draw on include: hope, efficacy, resilience, optimism, gratitude, empathy, mindfulness, and growth mindset. What’s most important about this group of traits is that they are flexible not fixed, which means you can train and develop them. The very best entrepreneurs (those of which TechStars refers to) also happen to have a high reserve of these skills.

When you see someone shining during difficult times you can bet that they are optimistic, and hopeful, meaning they believe that challenges present new opportunities to find new solutions. Although they may not see the perfect answer yet, they know that answers exist and they believe they can uncover them. Since they have resilience and high self-efficacy, they get through the hard days without breaking. This allows them to take another swing at the problem tomorrow. They use empathy to feel their way through the challenging times and understand the people and market conditions. They are not easily blinded by fear. However, when they do sense fear they find a way to use it as fuel, reframing it into something more beneficial to their needs.

If a leader is wise, they’ll coach their people to remain grateful, and because of that they’ll keep their customers and their very best employees even when times are rough. If they do lose a few of those customers along the way, it doesn’t break them, they just keep on going. Finally, they have a growth mindset and acknowledge that events can and should change. Ultimately this predisposes them to experience post-traumatic growth while other companies experience organizational post-traumatic stress disorder.

Personally, I’m thankful that life is not a flat or steady line (Boring!). It’s filled with peaks and valleys and hopefully you can see that these really are the most important skills that we should be teaching our employees, leaders, and even our children. Markets change like the seasons. Good and bad things happen. Trust that the very best survive. Even though the sun shines 300 days a year in Silicon Valley, it may be that winter is coming. However, when everyone starts fearing the loss of the unicorns, don’t run for the hills, just double down on the psychological behaviors that matter and start looking for the solutions. And remember, the fittest leaders and companies will survive.

Jennifer Moss