Six Strategies To Keep Employees Motivated In Uncertain Times

The certainty of misery is better than the misery of uncertainty.

These are tough times for a lot of you. Just a year or two ago, you couldn’t find or keep enough employees, and you kept asking me to speak on recruitment and retention.

Now some of you are facing the opposite problem. You are being forced to downsize your department, and you’re wondering how to keep your employees motivated in such an environment. There are some things you can do. Here are a few tips from my program on “Peak Performance: Motivating the Best in Others.”

First, DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP. You did not cause these tough times, and you probably could not have predicted these tough times. That’s the very nature of change. It’s somewhat unpredictable.

For example, who could have predicted the change in fashion? Do you remember when clothing tags were worn on the inside? Now it’s fashionable, the kids think, to wear them on the outside.

Or who could have predicted the change in behaviors? Do you remember when safe sex meant your parents did not find out? Now some parents “equip” their kids for sex.

Or who could have predicted the change in the marketplace? The great movie mogul, Harry Warner, couldn’t. In 1922, he said, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” The founder of IBM, Tom Watson, Senior, couldn’t. In 1943, he said, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” And Ken Olsen, the President of the Digital Equipment Corporation, couldn’t. In 1973, he said, “There is no reason for anyone to have a computer in his house.”

So don’t beat yourself up for not being able to predict or prevent tough economic times. All that will do is deflate you, and you need to be out there motivating your colleagues.

Second, remember your MOST IMPORTANT TASK IS TO KEEP THEIR HOPE ALIVE. You need to project an optimistic view of the future. Your colleagues need to know that you believe a better day is coming. But you also need to give a realistic assessment of the obstacles that must be overcome in order to reach that better day.

That means you must KEEP YOUR EMPLOYEES FULLY INFORMED. You must tell them as much as you can as often as you can. In downsizing environments, the levels of uncertainty run high amongst the employees. So you’ve got to reduce their confusion, even if that means sharing some bad news. As my tip says, the certainty of misery is better than the misery of uncertainty.

People deserve and people need lots of information about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what the next steps will be. And your information sharing has to be immediate. Not doing so allows the rumor mill to churn out any number of ridiculous stories that do nothing but increase stress and decrease motivation. So keep your people informed of each action that is being taken and the results of all previous actions.

Fourth, TELL THE TRUTH. If you try to relieve the employees’ misery by saying things will calm down after the reorganization, you may be heading for trouble. You may be misleading your employees. The next time your organization announces a change, your employees’ trust will take a nosedive. Employees need to be taught how to handle the change, not be told it will soon be over.

On the other hand, CONTINUE TO REASSURE YOUR EMPLOYEES WITH YOUR PRESENCE. Be visible. In times of change, seeing and hearing the leader is important. Too often the managers or leaders only meet with other senior people, or they disappear behind closed doors. Employees need to see and hear their bosses. So be accessible. Be available for questions.

Dr. Bev Smallwood has done some fascinating research on “magnetic workplaces,” workplaces that do the best job of retaining the best employees. She has found that 60 to 70% of retention is directly linked to management behavior. In particular, managers that spend time with their employees, who build relationships with their employees, keep their employees.

You can also reassure your people by reiterating your belief in them. Remind them of their talents. Let them know you believe in them and their abilities.

Just don’t be crass about it. Don’t be like the one situation I heard about. The supervisor told her boss, “Here’s my list of reasons why I can’t run my department on this budget.” Her manager replied, “Well, here’s my list of people who can.”

You can also keep your employees motivated if you CUT AND SIMPLIFY THE WORK. That’s the sixth strategy. If you’ve gone through downsizing, you’ve probably cut the workplace but not the workload. Something’s got to give.

There’s a time when “doing more with less” makes a lot of sense, but there’s also a time when it’s just plain ridiculous. There comes a point when “doing more with less” is not only impossible, it’s absolutely demoralizing to keep saying it.

So what can you do? You can’t just pretend things are the same. But you can reorder priorities on a task by task basis. You can cut extraneous tasks, forms, and procedures. You can encourage your associates to take shortcuts in non-critical, routine areas to make time for more important items. And you can allow your associates to collaborate and figure out how the extra work will be handled. In fact, the sense of teamwork that comes out of collaboration can be a great motivator.

That’s what Ameritech did. People from corporate headquarters went from office to office, from department to department, in one city after another. They would hold up several different reports and asked the field people if they needed these reports. By listening to their field people, they were able to cut out 6,000,000 pages of reports that no one needed and no one read. It made the field people feel empowered and recognized, but it also cut out a number of their less important tasks.

No one likes to go through these tough economic times, and no one likes all the changes and sacrifices required by these times. However, you can do a lot to relieve the misery of uncertainty if you do the six things outlined today.

Action:  Rank order the six strategies outlined in today’s “Tuesday Tip.” Rank them from 1 to 6, 1 being the strategy you are best at. Strategy 6 is obviously the one that needs the most improvement. Write out two action steps you can take this week to become more effective at strategy 6. Then take both action steps in the next week.