Managing and Motivating Your Team in Stressful Times

Your company’s third round of layoffs is imminent, your boss is barking out demands with heightened urgency, and your staff is tired, tense and afraid they’re next in line to be laid off. It’s your job to motivate employees, continue to meet ever-increasing demands and bring your projects in under budget and on time.

This all too familiar scenario is now a daily reality for many managers. Pressures from the top increase, while resources and staff available to meet growing expectations decrease. The keys to effective management in this uncertain work environment lie in understanding the fundamentals that motivate employees to perform, which means abandoning old incentives like job security and company advancement, and instead focusing on building a corporate culture of respect.

How to Cultivate Employee Motivation
At the core, individuals need to feel their work is valued and contributes in important ways to the organization’s larger mission. This is no easy task, but nonetheless, a task demanded of managers.

Recently, when making a reservation to fly on Southwest Airlines, I told the agent she had made my experience positive. She seemed genuinely unhurried and happy in her job, which is far from a highly paid or revered position. Her response reflected the outcome possible in a well-managed environment: “We’re just nice to people, and we try to help them,” she said. “It’s really basic.”

Implicit in her simple response was a clear sense of her role within the larger team, and an understanding of the core principals that drive Southwest’s approach to customer service. Not formulaic or based on fear that our conversation was being monitored for quality assurance, she understood her role was turning one piece of Southwest’s mission into a reality, one customer at a time.

On the other hand, a client who left a well-paid consulting position came to me to discuss plans for the next stage in her career. When asked about her bold decision to leave, she stated, “The environment was toxic, bringing out the worst in my colleagues and me. Everyone blamed everyone else, played dangerous political games and acted increasingly cut throat. There was no sense of joy or satisfaction, no real meaning. I didn’t like the person I was becoming.” The money and promise of a relatively stable position, while compelling, were not enough to counter the alienation and lack of ethics that dominated the culture.

James Henderson, the former CEO of Cummins Engine, summarizes the essence of motivation, “Once people trust management, know they are responsible and are given the training, it’s astonishing what they can do for customers and, ultimately, shareholders.”

Creating a Winning Corporate Culture
Creating a culture of respect, recognition and trust amid larger forces of chaos and uncertainty may seem daunting, but the process is actually very basic. It simply involves a fundamental recognition that work needs to be meaningful, have inherent value and be valued by others.

A culture of respect and trust requires managers to build relationships with their staff based on honesty and integrity. It may be tempting to be outcome-oriented because of pressures to meet deadlines, but investing in staff relationships will yield greater results. Be sure to communicate both the positive and negative news you hold as a manager. This straightforwardness will build trust that you are an advocate for your area. To the extent that you can, involve employees in decisions affecting them and their work.

Another requisite for managers is to regularly communicate and prioritize their departments’ goals, while tying accomplishment of these goals to the organization’s larger aims. Even if company-wide recognition processes have been eliminated, effective managers find ways to recognize their workers’ individual and collective accomplishments and convey publicly how their work has advanced the larger agenda of the department and organization.

Solid management skills in today’s world of work requires managers to return to the fundamentals that motivate people, especially within the sphere they influence. Restoring respect will ground you and your department amid the volatility.