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Motivating Employees During Tough Times

by | Effective Leadership, Employee Engagement, Employee Motivation

In today’s turbulent economic market, even the strongest and most powerful corporate icons are challenged to find ways to improve their efficiencies. As they require more work from fewer numbers of people, their top priority is to have effective leaders and motivators who can propel their group to greatness. Unfortunately, many young managers and leaders have never seen a tight economy, or at a minimum, have only a faint memory of what it can be like. It’s during these times that leadership skills are put to the test because employee motivation becomes more difficult as the resources for motivating are pulled at the same time.

Understanding human psychology is critical during tough times because we need to get beyond the fluff. Yes, ice cream socials are fun for employees, but they aren’t the “be-all-end-all” to employee motivation. Contests are interesting, but people find them disconcerting during tough times.

The fact is that four critical elements of leadership are extremely valuable during robust times and essential during challenging times. Implement these leadership qualities in your organization today so you can nurture a motivated workforce for years to come.

Three Leadership Qualities to Implement Today


1. Lend an empathetic ear.

Guilt, fear, paranoia, as well as a few other destructive emotions, can freeze people’s performance during tough times. The natural response is for a leader to click his or her heels with the hopes of ending up in Kansas. Denial is a natural response when things get tough, but many leaders never move beyond that. The thought of talking openly about feelings sends shivers down the spines of most managers, and ignoring those emotions only causes greater challenges.

To increase motivation and performance, create a forum for people to share their feelings so they can release them and move on. Put on your tomato suit and listen to the whining in a structured forum. If you don’t, your employees are sure to keep whining for months and months past the time people would normally let it go. The funny thing about emotions is that if we don’t sense that the other person truly understands our emotions, we tend to stay charged. If you don’t want to be listening to the same complaints over and over, then listen with emotion. If someone’s voice is loud and angry, say back in a loud voice, “I feel terrible because I see you’re so upset.” Then continue the conversation by dropping your voice slowly to a normal range. Watch the magic as they diffuse by merely knowing you “really got it.”

2. Don’t buy into the “ain’t it awful” story.

Everything you hear could be true. Quarterly profits could be down, market share may be shrinking, and turnover could be high. These, and other measurements, are feedback that an organization isn’t doing what it should be doing. For many, this information is the confirmation that the sky is falling, and they’re hoarding hard hats. The problem is that it’s hard to restart the engines and fly when you’re dragging extra hardhats.

Lead your people to the understanding that even during the darkest times, many do well, and you intend to be one of them. Your team needs to shift out of their doomsday story and into one of the possibilities. When people say, “We can’t because,” the broken record response needs to be, “Well, how CAN we?” With enough repetition, people will soon come to understand that results can be achieved no matter what the circumstances. Let them know that you are choosing to vote out a down market or recession because customers need what you have, and you’re willing to work harder to get it to them.

3. Shift the focus to making a difference.

Think back to the last time you were depressed. Where was your focus? Of course, you focused on you. That’s where all of us focus when we’re depressed. The same thing happens with organizations. When they focus on themselves and their petty concerns, the downward spiral speeds up. But when people start thinking about making a difference in the world, suddenly they’re energized and desiring to do great things.

One of our basic human needs is to do extraordinary things with our lives and to be energized by them as they happen. And yet, within months of an employee’s tenure with a new company, the original passion for doing extraordinary things is often gone. The drive they possessed during the interview to do great things turned into a desire to cope and get by. The passion is gone, and the performance potential went with it.

Many of the practices we learned in Business College about management are precisely the things that rob people of that passion and “soul.” When asked what they’re most frustrated about with their employees, most leaders answer, “They just don’t think out of the box.” That same manager will then do a performance review and tie it into the “job description” that puts that person into a box. Without an inspirational vision that lays out precisely what extraordinary results you expect, your employees have no place to go but in the box.

The problem is that during tough times, managers often focus inward. “A 20 percent growth rate” and “A return on equity of 10%” are things they tell their front line people. However, most front line people don’t change their behaviors with those instructions. The reality is that the vision you share needs to be focused on making a difference in the world-a rallying cry for being so extraordinary that the world is forever changed.

The vision of “A head in every bed every night” for a hotel chain; “Over 100 applicants for each job opening” for an HR department; “Every customer in our market area can retire with financial independence” for a financial planning firm; or “Every customer comes back asking for one of our sales associates by name” for a retail sales firm, are clear examples that you expect to be extraordinary-during good times or bad. You’ll discover that the bad times go away when your vision is focused on making a difference for others.

4. Appreciate the steps along the way.

Frustration runs high when things aren’t working well. Employees’ confidence is shaken. When confidence is low, performance weakens, thereby feeding into the cycle of lower motivation and performance. It doesn’t have to be this way. Appreciate the little steps along the way during challenging times.

Let your employees know that you appreciate not only the things they do but also who they are and the efforts they make. Build fun into your appreciation. It’s amazing how little juvenile things will get adults to work harder. A bell in the middle of the building that people run to when they have a major sale gets everyone appreciating them on the trip there and back and keeps the workplace lighthearted and silly. It is our childlike energy that drives the extraordinary. Grownups are too serious about doing extraordinary things-they prefer to fit in. However, fitting in is the kiss of death for a high-performance organization.

Good organizations, departments, and managers thrive during rough times because they learn to hone their skills like never before. They’ve discovered that it’s the bad times that make them so much better during the good times. When you can keep your team motivated and productive during the most challenging of events, your organization will stand out, and your employees will lead your company to greatness.

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