Keeping Your Employees Motivated in Turbulent Times

By Ed Rigsbee, CSP

Ed Rigsbee, CSP, author of PartnerShift — How to Profit from the Partnering Trend, is a freelance columnist. His Partnering University Web site is located at rigsbee.com.

As a business owner or manager you are currently dealing with two crucial issues for the success of your business. First, you are dealing with the recent economic slowdown and the possible magnification of that slowdown resulting from the Sept. 11 attack on America. Second, 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.

To put their feelings into perspective, perhaps you might think back on a difficult financial time for your business, a time when even meeting payroll was in question. Somehow you survived. Your business today is living proof of your survival instincts.

Think back on the enormously high level of anxiety you experienced.

Many of your employees are experiencing those same kinds of anxiety levels in both the areas of national security, as well as job security.

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 questioning their safety and security, which impacts employee performance. A recent Wall Street Journal article on workers' needs in cataclysmic times quotes David Stum of Aon Corp.'s Loyalty Institute as saying, "Bosses who ignore or rebuff basic needs will see employee commitment and output fall."

Linda Nash, author of The Bounce Back Quotient, suggests you help your employees, as well as yourself, to take control of what you can during this turbulent time. She believes that to the extent you take control you will reduce your stress and powerless feelings.

Nash points out that you can't control what happened — you can't fix it — you can't turn back the clock.

"Your world has changed without asking your permission," she says.

"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 life to go immediately back to normal. She says, "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."

People that tend to be more emotional will express their feelings openly, but people that keep their feelings bottled up inside could be teetering on the breaking point. The key message in this article is: To keep your valued employees, it is crucial that you help them in the way they need to be helped rather than how you think they need help. Please stop now and cement this idea in your head. Acting on this understanding is what will make the difference between high and low productivity in these difficult times.

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

He says, "After a significant crisis, every person and every company needs an adjustment period.

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-itthis-way' syndrome. Grief includes five key stages — denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. These 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."

I recommend you pay close attention to the six employee need areas listed below. Please understand that not all your employees will need attention in all areas. Some might not need any attention at all while some could need attention in several of the areas listed below. Your role in helping your employees is to keep your eyes open to their special needs. It might also be helpful for your employees if you could 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.

EMPLOYEES THAT NEED SUPPORT:

In turbulent times, some people need a bit of a crutch on which to lean. You, as an employer, very well may be that support mechanism. In times when people need this shoring up of their fortitude and morale, they could also need additional guidance. President Bush, during his Sept. 20 address to the joint members of Congress, aimed to provide Americans with both an emotional and moral compass. You can make a big difference in the lives of your employees by providing, on a daily basis, the same emotional support.

EMPLOYEES THAT NEED TO REASSESS THEIR PRIORITIES:

A good number of people are taking a closer look at their lives and their priorities. You can help your employees by being open to the changes they select. You may find it necessary to allow some people that have been deeply affected to transfer into a new position or set of responsibilities. Be open to the possibilities.

EMPLOYEES THAT NEED NEW CHALLENGES:

Some employees may feel a need to share in the leadership role. This might help them to have some sense of control in their lives. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Harvard University conducted several employee productivity studies at Western Electric's Hawthorne Works.

They concluded that people were more productive when they had some control over their work environment. The same is true today.

Perhaps an employee could head a new project, take the lead in learning a new technology, or even participate in management meetings representing the rank-and-file employees.

Donnelly Corp. of Holland, Mich., has had great success worldwide for several years with the idea of employee representation.

EMPLOYEES THAT NEED GUIDANCE AND MENTORING:

Most people, sometime in their careers, need some guidance and/or mentoring. Living through tragedy can amplify this need. As perhaps you are, your employees, especially the younger ones, 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 feel good, it will help their productivity.

EMPLOYEES THAT NEED A CHEERLEADER:

Cheerleading, at all times, and especially now, is a crucial element in successful leadership. Periodically, everybody needs to be told how valuable he or she is to an organization. Some need this reinforcement more often than others. Now more than ever, it is 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. And, when they do amaze you, acknowledge and reward their accomplishments.

EMPLOYEES THAT NEED TO BE LEFT ALONE:

While I realize it might be difficult to understand 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, and if you must involve yourself, this is the time to use the carrot rather than the stick.

The key to helping your employees through tough times, and keeping them motivated, is to focus on what they need, and how they need it, rather than imposing your experience on them. Stepping back and viewing a situation through a new window can, at times, be difficult for even the most caring of employers. Yet, it is what you have to do.