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Keeping Staff Motivated When Times Are Tough

Here’s how talented team leaders rally their troops in the midst of trouble.

by Larry Dobrow

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You'd think that anyone with the brains and survival skills to qualify as a "higher-up" nowadays would long since have figured out how to keep their employees engaged and motivated during tough times. You'd think that, collectively, they would have codified a set of go-to communications techniques to address specific common situations (imminent layoffs, pay freezes, etc.). Alas, you'd think wrong.

Even as the U.S. economy has sputtered for close to half a decade, some of the engagement and motivational strategies used by actual, ostensibly successful businesses sound like they were dreamed up by second-graders. To wit, one healthcare IT consulting firm says it keeps morale high and employee turnover low by staging "pet supermodel" contests and presenting "Born Winner" onesies (decorated with the firm's logo, natch) to new-parent employees.

Rule #1: Tell the Truth. In the real world, tough-minded execs and consultants have responded to the economic tumult by confronting employees' crises of confidence head-on, rather than by ducking, dodging or obfuscating. Along those lines, they stress that the worst thing any leader can do during challenging times is sugarcoat or traffic in half-truths.

If the most recent round of layoffs may not be the last, admit as much. If the most recent financial results augur bad things for the future, say so. "Employees can distinguish a true fact from an almost-true fact," says Manola Robison of Robison Management Consulting. "Facts they can handle and digest; almost-facts upset them and put them in a non-cooperative mood."

Rule #2: Challenge Your Team. Dan Eddinger, currently a store manager for Target, learned this the hard way at a previous job. As the head of a field-services team deploying and maintaining smart grid systems, he had to keep his team motivated during what he euphemistically refers to as "some very difficult product issues." Beyond communicating openly about those issues, Eddinger decided the best way to engage his charges was by challenging them.

To that end, he asked them to develop and execute two revenue-generating programs within a short time period. Six weeks later, Eddinger's company had a new remote-hosted system in place, a task that had previously proven a tough nut to crack. "The team members revolutionized the way the company saw the world, which was a direct result of empowering them and setting them free to take control of their own destiny," Eddinger says.

Rule #3: Focus on What You Can Control. Then there's Maynard Webb, who runs investment firm Webb Investment Network and sits on the boards of Yahoo! and LiveOps. Years ago, he went to work at a nascent tech company, prompting many of his peers to say he "was crazy to join in the midst of such turmoil," he recalls. The problem: his company's website couldn't handle all the traffic coming its way. The only solution was to take the site down and stabilize the system -- which, for a company that lives on the web, wasn't a solution at all.

Webb chose to keep his battered staff engaged by acknowledging the depth of the problem (to "run into the fire," as he puts it now) and suggesting that their energy would be better spent discussing the steps that could be taken to address the problem. Basically, he told them to set aside the panic and fear (easier said than done) and focus on those factors that they could control. That's what they did, ultimately restoring the system's stability (without taking the site down) as well as the faith of customers and Wall Street. That company, by the way, was a little outfit named eBay; Webb served as COO during its period of greatest growth.

"Ultimately all that matters is action and outcomes," he says. "Ignoring problems will not help anyone. Problems do not get better with age."

Rule #4: Show Them That You Care. Of course, huge, public gestures of leadership aren't the only ones that register with staffers during hard times. A few years back, Alan Allard, a corporate coach and author of Seven Secrets to Enlightened Happiness, was tasked with identifying solutions for a company enduring a stretch of low sales -- which, combined with the owner's gruff demeanor, had sent morale into the basement. While he couldn't help the owner attack the sales issues, Allard came up with a plan to humanize him and, in the process, restore morale and engagement.

Allard asked the owner to send handwritten notes to two employees every week. Within a month or two, Allard reports, "Word had gotten out that the owner was actually making attempts to be human." Sales and customer-service ratings surged back to acceptable levels within six months.

"Random perks are good, but how personal are they?" Allard asks. "When a manager takes the time to write employees a [handwritten] note, they have tangible evidence that he or she not only notices them and cares about them, but also truly values them. Most employees will follow a leader through the hard times if they feel noticed, cared about and valued. A handwritten note says all that."