09/16/2010 02:56 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Upside of the Economy's Downturn

In a recent article I outlined four benefits of the current economic climate for today's corporations.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm as hopeful as anyone that this recession will end swiftly; much pain has come along with it. But at the same time, it's obvious to me that our economic challenges have driven our best organizations to be more purposeful, more efficient, more resourceful and better aligned.

For every action, of course, there is an equal and opposite consequence. When a company reduces efforts in peripheral markets, for example, it may get stronger, but the jobs of the people exploring those markets go away. When a corporate meeting is held on-site rather than at a resort, it might be a better use of limited budgets, but a hotel chain loses revenue, and again jobs come into question.

This made me wonder: Has the recession benefited companies at the expense of individuals? It may seem that way. But even in the most difficult circumstances, sometimes everybody wins, at least a little. Personally, I'd rather seek out those benefits than leave them unexplored.

Forced Change Encourages Growth
Job loss is traumatic, to be sure. Yet I can already name a handful of people for whom a forced change turned out great. One friend of mine laughed the day after being laid off. "Thank goodness," he said. "I've been trying for years to figure out how to quit without burning bridges in the industry." Another colleague was devastated for months, flirting with serious clinical depression. Today, a year later, she has landed a position that improves upon her previous one in every way. She is thrilled; she is first to admit that she never would have made the change voluntarily, and she speaks proudly of having "weathered the storm and come out stronger."

A lost job can provide the impetus to seek out a new employer or career, or to finally make a move that's been languishing on the back burner. It can also launch a process of self-discovery that ultimately leads to a whole new set of life priorities. Such was the case with a former client of mine. He now spends more time with his wife, is considering adopting a child and takes frequent road trips on his motorcycle. He does have a new job, but with lower pay and substantially fewer hours. "I never thought I could afford to leave," he told me, "but now I can't figure out how I afforded to stay."

Creativity at Home
Of course, it's easy to benefit from a job change if you have cash reserves. But what about people under immediate financial pressure? Are they guaranteed to lose out when the economy contracts?

Again, not necessarily. I'm not insensitive to the pain of foreclosures, forced moves and the kind of transitions nobody wants to endure -- I've seen them firsthand. On the other hand, I've also seen and heard how cooking dinner instead of ordering in has brought the family together, and how road trips in place of airplane rides have brought couples closer. Personally, I recently tackled the project of grooming my two dogs, a cost saving move that had intimidated me for some time because of the size and energy level of the beasts. The result was about 90 minutes on the floor with the dogs and my significant other, laughing and playing as she tried to distract one dog while I worked on the other. The monetary savings was nothing compared to the emotional value of the experience.

I'm not naïve. I know financial pressure is no laughing matter, especially when it threatens survival. But sometimes, in hindsight, our solutions have a silver lining that isn't apparent when the pressure is on.

Those Left Behind
One other challenge of the recession worth mentioning -- one that often takes a back seat to the plight of the unemployed -- is the plight of the still-employed. Keeping your job is better than losing it, but that doesn't mean it's easy. For those left behind after a layoff, professional relationships and friendships are disrupted, workloads increase, morale declines and security all but evaporates. Retained employees are expected to work harder than ever, for a job that seems less certain than ever, with less support and help than ever. It's not a great place to be.

And yet, even here some advantages may hide. Nothing breeds solidarity like a common cause. Workers who previously avoided each other -- separated by a difference in position or a difference of opinion -- often come together when survival is on the line. The decisions that flow from that type of collaboration can lead to a stronger company and a more stable job. Consider Home Depot's use of the recession as an opportunity to improve inventory centralization. Store managers may not have been thrilled with the idea of relinquishing stockpiles during the boom years, but the contraction no doubt nudged them in a direction that will ultimately make them a more stable employer.

What's the Upside of Your Downturn?
Like everyone, I've felt the pain of the recession myself, and seen it first hand with friends and loved ones. I'm as hopeful as anyone that the worst is behind us. I'm also hopeful that both corporations and individuals will take the time to find at least one silver lining in what will go down in history as one of the biggest clouds in a long time.

Ask yourself, what benefits have you seen in your company, or in your personal life from the recession? What positive changes have come, either in the environment around you, or in your own behavior and situation? What lessons, information or changes are you happy about?

It may strike you as inappropriate, misguided or even cruel to use the words "happy" and "recession" together. If so, consider this: whatever positive value you ultimately extract from the downturn, you already know that it was purchased at a substantial cost. You're going to pay either way, so you might as well get as much as you can of what you paid for.