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Motivating employees: 5 fail-safe tips in rough times


Motivating employees can be difficult, especially in uncertain times or when change is on the horizon.

Some organizational changes are self-initiated, like mergers, acquisitions or layoffs. Others are uncontrollable, like natural disasters, lawsuits or legislative changes.

However, any or all of these circumstances can easily impact your employees’ level of engagement and motivation – and, when mishandled, not for the better.

Here’s how you can get prepared for times of uncertainty and face them head-on when they hit.

Build a culture of trust

Your organizational response to any difficult situation will be guided by the cultural norms already in place in your company.

That’s why your efforts to build a culture of trust with your employees should begin now – hopefully long before a big change or crisis hits.

You need to begin building trust from day one. For example, if you tell a job candidate you’ll get back to them in one week, you should follow up with a response in that time frame, even if you don’t have a hiring decision to share.

Let’s say that same candidate becomes an employee. The employee asks to attend a training or some other professional development opportunity. His manager tells him she will see if there is room in the budget.

As promised, she returns to let him know that the budget won’t allow it right away, but that she will check again next quarter. She then follows up the next quarter with news that funds are now available, and the employee attends the training. The manager has fulfilled her promise, and the organization has consistently fulfilled the employee’s expectations.

Months later, the company announces there will be a merger. Leaders say the accounting department will be affected, but the product development department won’t be.

As a part of the product development team, the employee is able to remain focused without speculating on whether he will lose his job. He trusts that the information is true because leaders in the company have always been honest with him.

Employees take what’s said as gospel if you’re consistently honest and transparent with them. When you motivate your employees by earning their trust from the start, they will be much more likely to believe that your company’s leaders make decisions with everyone’s best interests at heart.

Then, when the hard times come, you’ll have a united front that works together to overcome challenges.

Communicate clearly

Every organization will experience some kind of hardship – that’s just life. When uncertainty hits, communication is key.

Employees expect to be treated as adults. They want leaders to explain what’s going on, and they want to understand how they need to adapt their work behavior as the company works through a difficult situation.

Don’t leave it vague. Leaders should say where the company is, where it’s going, and what’s expected from employees.

For example, is the company in cost-containment mode due to losses after a natural disaster? Should employees, therefore, be vigilant about keeping their travel expenses low, turning the lights out when they leave a room and keeping paper waste to a minimum?

When you help employees understand what’s needed from them, they can solidify your effort to make the changes necessary and move on successfully. And it will keep them from speculating about what’s going on.

There might be times when you can’t share the details of the situation with employees. For example, say you’re facing a discrimination claim because of a problem in your job application process.

In this instance, you could say, “I’m not at a liberty to discuss everything about this developing situation. But here’s what I can tell you, and here’s what I need you to do.”

While it’s possible that you can’t tell your employees details about the open case, you could make sure they get started improving the application to ensure compliance in the future. Also, make it a point to explain what is at risk if a change doesn’t occur.

Address any rumors

Meanwhile, keep your ears to the water cooler.

If you hear a rumor going around, address it directly. Use the same, specific language you heard in the rumors, and speak to the myths and facts of it – even if it means having a difficult conversation.

For example, you could say, “I’ve been hearing XYZ. This part is true. This part is not true, and let me demystify this rumor by explaining how it might have started.”

In times of uncertainty, there’s often a gap in understanding where you are today and where you want the company to go. Try to close that gap.

For instance, you could explain: “We’re here today. This is what this means. This is where we want to go in the next year. These are our plans to get there. And this is how you can help us get there.”

If you want to get past a difficult time, employees need to understand what types of activities they can (and should) be doing to help the company reach its goals.

Look for signs of distraction

In uncertain times, it’s human nature to go into self-preservation mode. The first thing people think is, “Will I lose my job? Will I be able to pay my bills? Will I be able to provide for my family?”

These thoughts can become consuming. For example, an employee who used to be able to produce one analytics report a day might now take two business days to produce the same report because he’s distracted.

Quality, speed, service and innovation can also be pulled to a halt when uncertainty looms.

You might also notice a turnover trend. If people are starting to leave, see if you can find any patterns. Is it the tenured employees who are leaving? Or, is the attrition concentrated to a particular team?

For example, if your turnover is normally 10 percent per quarter, but you notice that last quarter it was 25 percent, you’ll want to determine why these employees are leaving.

Is something being misunderstood?

If you begin to notice downward trends in productivity and upward trends in turnover, your communication efforts might not be enough. Provide hope to your employees, and reiterate to them that things will get better – over and over again if necessary.

You could remind them, for instance, of how the organization dealt with a similar situation in the past. You might say: “If you recall, back in 2015, we went through something similar and banded together as an organization to get through it.”

Employees will look to you to guide them through this difficult time, so be aware of how your actions impact the organization.

Accept that you’ll sometimes face uncertainty, too

You won’t always have all the answers – and that’s OK. But be mindful of what you say and how you say it.

Have humility and vulnerability. Admit that you don’t have all the answers, but that you’re committed to finding them and resolving the situation at hand.

You don’t have to solve every issue in front of you on your own. You hired good people, so let them help you find solutions to the challenges you face.

For example, bring a problem to the team. Tell them this is a bottleneck the organization needs to overcome and ask them what solution they think will be best for the company to move forward successfully.

By motivating your employees and including them in finding solutions they become more committed to executing plans to get past problems.

Understanding the impact

No matter what the circumstances, motivating employees in uncertain times is up to you. Your response to looming challenges or change will either help you build trust with your employees or break it down.

Use the points above to guide you as your company works through a difficult time. Also, be sure to download your free copy of The Insperity guide to leadership and management for more leadership insight.