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How to Ask More of Your Employees in Tough Times

How to Ask More of Your Employees in Tough Times

By: John Rossheim, Monster Senior Contributing Writer

With the global economy in deep trouble, many managers are reacting by battening down the hatches, putting off for another day lofty goals like employee development. They assume that if their companies are up against the wall, they can’t worry about their employees’ opportunities to thrive, often foregoing employee performance reviews and more.

But true leaders at employers large and small are taking a different tack, summoning their better workers to the task of powering through the storm, regardless of reduced resources and once-in-a-lifetime business conditions.

Some would even argue that employee development is even more important now than in normal times. “Developing employees during tough economic times is a key to engaging them, keeping them focused and productive,” says Edith Onderick-Harvey, president of executive coaching firm The Talent Advantage.

But how can employers motivate their teams in stressful times, in order to help the company stay above water and to keep their minds on the game? By appealing to employees’ natural inclination to aspire to higher responsibilities.

Good Workers Yearn to Move Up the Skills Scale

Good times and bad, some of your best workers are not deployed to full advantage. “The most frequent comment that employees make in an exit interview is, ‘My employer never fully used my potential,’” says Ed Boswell, CEO of consulting firm Forum Corp. “Most employees have a strong belief that they can do more.”

The key to motivating employees when you can’t afford to pay them more is to emphasize employee recognition as well as how skill-building will benefit their long-term career prospects. “Additional work means additional skills to learn and cultivate,” says Allison Wisnefski, president of JustWeddings.com.

Onderick-Harvey puts it another way. “Managers have fewer resources, so they have to get more creative about development. You should have regular conversations with your people about their aspirations and abilities, so when opportunities are created proactively or through circumstance, you know who can take on the additional responsibility,” says Onderick-Harvey.

Give Your Top Performers Strategic Assignments

But don’t let employee development serve as cover for merely giving your workers a higher quota of widgets to churn out. “Engage your strong talent in some of your deeper business issues, such as how to cut costs or redesign a process,” says Onderick-Harvey.

Boswell gives an example of a professional services company that gave a group of workers rich opportunities to grow while they helped out the company in a pinch. When this employer went without a marketing chief for a year, “the marketing team had to step up and take on the responsibilities of the VP who had left,” says Boswell. “At first, team members were worried, but the situation gave them opportunities that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, like dealing with the company’s top executives. At the end of the day, they felt it was a fantastic experience, even though no one got paid a dollar more.”

At JustWeddings.com, Wisnefski found she had a key task – telephone validation of orders that brides have placed on the company’s Web site – for which she could not afford dedicated staff. So Wisnefski asked an ambitious sales representative to take on this evening duty and learn a new aspect of the business. “She’s a great worker, and she wants to help out any way she can,” says Wisnefski. “She knows that we’re driving a business objective.”

Communicate Your Plan to Give Rewards in the Long Term

In these times, you can delay rewards for employees’ efforts above and beyond, but not forever, and not without communicating your intentions early on. “Employees who are asked to take on some of a boss’s responsibilities probably do expect that one day they will move up,” says Boswell. Or at least, they should anticipate an eventual raise that’s more than a cost-of-living adjustment.

Wisnefski says her people understand the business has the potential to offer greater rewards – in better times. “When the time is right, my staff will be compensated accordingly,” says Wisnefski.

One last point: Some employees may get jealous of career opportunities afforded to their coworkers, even if the new responsibilities don’t come with a promotion or raise.

“You run the risk that key workers believe that decisions are made based on favorites or politics,” says Fred Luthans, professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of Organizational Behavior. “When the economy turns around, they may say, ‘I’m done, I’m going someplace else.’ ” Again, upfront communication is the key to heading off problems with employees who might feel left behind.