Motivating Employees In Turbulent Times

October 13, 2001
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As a business owner or manager, you are currently dealing with two crucial issues for the success of your business:

1. You are dealing with the current economic slowdown and the possible magnification of that slowdown resulting from the September 11 attack on America.

2. You are dealing with the fears and anxieties of your employees — both about the well-being of America and the security of their own jobs.

In each of these areas, the effects of the terrorist attacks will have a long-lasting ripple effect on your employees and, therefore, your business.

To help put your employees’ feelings in perspective, think back on a difficult financial time in your business, a time when even meeting payroll was in question. Somehow you survived. Your business today is living proof of your survival instincts. But remember the enormously high level of anxiety you experienced.

Many of your employees are now experiencing those same kinds of anxiety levels in both the areas of national security and job security.



Helplessness, Insecurity

Everybody has some feelings of helplessness. We all want to do something to help our country, and in a way that will create value for others — not just doing for the sake of doing.

Many people, and not just in urban environments, are also truly questioning their safety and security. A recent Wall Street Journal article on workers’ needs in cataclysmic times quotes David Stum of Aon Corp.’s Loyalty Institute: “Bosses who ignore or rebuff basic needs will see employee commitment and output fall.”

Not all people deal with stress, sorrow, and anxiety the same way. Some are more resilient than others. To help you understand levels of resilience in people, I recommend you read Linda Nash’s book, The Bounce Back Quotient.

Nash suggests that you help your employees, as well as yourself, take control of what you can in this turbulent time. She believes that to the extent you take control, you will reduce your stress and feelings of powerlessness.

“Your world has changed without asking your permission,” states Nash. “Begin to take action — small is OK. Send a card, listen to someone who is grieving, take him/her food, hold a hand, give blood, attend a religious service, bake some cookies, volunteer, or assist in any way you can. Process your emotions, but don’t allow them to take total control. Do something!”

Nash warns employers not to expect to go full speed back to normal: “You may feel unusually tired or listless. Do what you can to regain your balance and take on usual tasks. Eat properly, take a walk, visit friends, get enough sleep, go to work, and begin focusing your thoughts elsewhere.”



Individual Needs

People who tend to be more emotional also tend to express their feelings more openly. People who keep their feelings bottled up inside — they could be teetering on the breaking point.

To keep your valued employees, it is crucial that you help them in the way they need help rather than how you think they need help. Cement this idea in your head now. Acting on this understanding will make the difference between high and low productivity in these difficult times.

It would also be helpful for you to have an understanding of the heritage, generational and historical cultures of your employees. If you are a middle-aged Anglo and all of your employees are middle-aged Anglos, and from the same small town, that is one thing — but, more likely, there will be a generational and cultural mix.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for people of different heritage and generations, but a few general solutions can help many.

Carlos Conejo, author of Motivating Hispanic Employees, says that in times of stress, Hispanic employees tend to need to be more involved in decision making and problem solving. He suggests that you open your channels of communication more widely with your Hispanic employees.

John Alston, CSP, CPAE, is a respected motivational speaker. He helps people rejuvenate themselves through a newfound awareness of their own potential. He is also an African-American. He suggests that in turbulent times, you help all your employees to grow as they are trying to deal with anxiety. He believes this will motivate employees to continue working for their employer.

Alston also suggests that you should be crystal clear on the mission of your organization. He suggests that in turbulent times, things are happening so quickly that what worked last week might not work this week. Alston says that for African-American employees, and especially in turbulent times, you need to be clear on how they operate and what they see as valuable. Help them build camaraderie in the workplace and reward their performance.

(On the topic of rewarding your employees, please read Praise for a Job Well Done at http://www.rigsbee.com/ma9.htm. In the article, 50 no-cost and low-cost ways to recognize employees are discussed.)



Grieving

Corporate psychologist Dr. Barton Goldsmith suggests that to help employees in turbulent times, you must understand the grieving process.

“After a significant crisis, every person and every company needs an adjustment period,” he says. “Companies that don’t make room for this psychological necessity find it more difficult to move ahead. Encourage and support your people to recognize and experience the loss, even if it’s the loss that comes from giving up the ‘We’ve always done it this way’ syndrome.

“Grief includes five key stages — denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance — that may come in any order except for acceptance, which is always the final stage. Guide your family and your team through the process, giving them room for their feelings to be expressed.

“Make sure to do the same for yourself.”



Employee Needs Defined

Pay close attention to the six employee need areas listed here. Please understand that not all your employees will need attention in all areas. Some might not need any attention at all, while others could need attention in several areas.

Your role is to keep your eyes open to your employees’ special needs. It might also be helpful for your employees if you communicate your willingness to help. Perhaps a memo or posted notice stating that you are available to help them in this difficult time would make it easier for them to approach you about their needs.

1. Employees who need support — In turbulent times, some people need a bit of a crutch to lean on. You could well be that support. When people need this shoring up of their fortitude and morale, they could also need additional guidance.

President George W. Bush, during his September 20 address to the joint members of Congress, provided America with both an emotional and a moral compass. As an employer, you can make a big difference in the lives of your employees by providing, on a daily basis, the same kind of emotional and moral compass.

2. Employees who need to reassess their priorities — A good number of people are taking a closer look at their lives and how they have selected their priorities. It is common to make such a reassessment following a critical event.

You can help your employees by being open to the changes they select. You may find it necessary to allow some people, who have been deeply affected, to transfer into a new position or set of responsibilities. Be open to the possibilities.

3. Employees who need new challenges — Some employees may feel a need to share in the leadership role. This might help them have a sense of control in their lives.

In the late 1920s and early 30s, Harvard University conducted several employee productivity studies at Western Electric’s Hawthorne (MA) Works. At that time, they concluded that people were more productive when they had some control over their work environment. This is still true.

Perhaps an employee could head a new project, take the lead in learning a new technology, or participate in management meetings representing the rank-and-file employees. Donnelly Corp. of Holland, MI, has had great success worldwide for several years with the idea of employee representation.

4. Employees who need guidance and mentoring — At some time in their careers, most people need some guidance and/or mentoring. Living through tragedy can amplify this need.

Perhaps you and your employees are in the process of sorting things out — emotions, feelings, priorities, and other issues. This is the time for you to shine. Help your employees by sharing your successes and failures. Show them the path to improvement and success. Not only will it make you personally feel good, it will help their productivity.

If you help them so well that they want to start their own business, become their partner. I watched Bruce Scott, owner of a burglar alarm company, build his network using this method. I also watched him net a fortune for him and his partners when the business was sold.

5. Employees who need a cheerleader — Periodically, everybody needs to be told how valuable s/he is to an organization. Some need this reinforcement more often than others. Cheerleading, especially now, is a crucial element in successful leadership.

In turbulent times, it is so important to show your pride in your employees. Perhaps now is a good time to push their creativity buttons and cultivate their star power.

Give your employees the opportunity and tools to amaze you. Many just need a bit of direction and a pat on the back and they’re off making things happen. When they do amaze you, acknowledge and reward their accomplishments.

6. Employees who need to be left alone — While I realize that it might be difficult to understand that some people need to be left alone to deal with issues in their own way, without assistance or guidance, it is true that some do better this way.

Their behavior might manifest as something that resembles work avoidance or hide-and-seek behavior. Be sensitive to their issues. If you must involve yourself, this is the time to use the carrot rather than the stick.

Let me repeat it: To keep employees motivated during these turbulent times, focus on what they need, and how they need it, rather than imposing your cultural, generational, and empirical experience on them.

Stepping back and viewing a situation through a new window can, at times, be difficult for even the most caring employers. It is what you now have to do.

Rigsbee, CSP, is the author of Partner-Shift, Developing Strategic Alliances and The Art of Partnering. Rigsbee has over 500 published articles to his credit and is a regular keynote presenter at corporate and trade association conferences across North America. He can be reached at 800-839-1520; EdRigsbee@aol.com (e-mail). Or, visit his Partnering University at www.rigsbee.com (website).

Linda Nash may be reached at 800-701-9782; Carlos Conejo at 805-494-0378; John Alston at 800-200-9225; and Dr. Barton Goldsmith at 866-522-7866.

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