Harvard Business review

Keeping Your Team Motivated When the Company Is Struggling

It’s not surprising to learn that employee motivation is flagging these days. Fear of a slowing economy has layoffs up 39% in the second quarter of 2022, bringing the year’s total to more than 133,000. On top of that, the great resignation continues to lead employees to exit toxic workplaces characterized by uncaring leaders and poor advancement opportunities. Rising inflation has increased prices at supermarkets and gas stations. Combined with an increasingly polarizing political landscape and ongoing, troubling global events, you have the perfect motivation-draining cocktail.

Leaders are noticing the sense of gloom and angst on their teams and wondering what they can do to curb the demoralization. Many reflexively reach for words intended to reenergize and inspire, but that often backfires. Statements like, “Let’s focus on the positives” or “Sure our budget was badly cut, but let’s be grateful we still have our jobs” may be well intended but only add insult to injury.

If your team is showing signs of lost motivation, there are helpful steps you can take to help them rediscover it. But it’s important that you start with an accurate assessment of what is actually happening. First, understand that motivate isn’t a verb. It’s a choice. It’s not something you can do to or for others.

What you can do is create the conditions in which those you lead choose to be as motivated as circumstances will allow. Keep in mind: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this. Members of your team may be struggling with different feelings and challenges. As one client recently vented to me, “I have one who says she’s burned out, another disappointed and angry the budget cuts sunset her top project, and still another dealing with the fact that his brother was laid off from another department. Am I supposed to be everyone’s therapist now?”

Human motivation is complicated. A person’s motivation is a complex set of emotions, including excitement, joy, desire, passion, and hope. And those emotions are derived from a set of skills and traits, including resilience, optimism, self-confidence, and ambition. When motivation flags, those emotions and traits aren’t gone, but they get covered up or substituted. Emotions like fear, anger, anxiety, sadness, even a sense of futility and self-doubt crowd out motivating factors. Your job is to find out what might be at the root of an employee’s lost motivation and help them make the necessary choices to rediscover theirs over time. Here are some ways to begin.

When You’re Delivering Bad News and Making Tough Calls

No leader relishes being the messenger of disappointing news. To soothe the intense discomfort, many become overly self-involved, taking their eyes off of the very people they should be caring for. When there are difficult things to say, here are some things to keep in mind.

Don’t sugarcoat.

It’s natural to want to soften the blow when you know decisions will elicit painful reactions. But that usually causes more pain. Offering false reassurances that things will be okay or pointing out the bright side invalidates the grief and fear people may be feeling.

Allowing people to show their emotions legitimizes and honors their experience. Even if people express emotions you don’t share, listen with empathy and resist saying anything that risks minimizing what they’re expressing.

Don’t defend yourself.

Having to make hard decisions is part of your job. When people express understandable disappointment or resentment to budget cuts, layoffs, or other difficult news, you have to take it graciously. That doesn’t mean you have to tolerate hostile disrespect or offensive behavior, but you do have to bear the brunt.

Defending your decision feels dismissive of their emotions. Never play the victim with statements like, “You have no idea how hard this was.” That will lead people to withdraw trust and become even more demotivated.

Deal with survivor guilt after layoffs.

If you’ve had to lay people off, those that remain may well be dealing with survivor guilt. Others may feel a darker sense of envy of those who got to leave.

Here again, allow people to feel their wide range of emotions safely and honestly. Many will try to hide their emotions from you, feigning positivity to avoid “being next.” Communicate consistently and transparently to make it safe for others to be honest about how they’re feeling.

When possible, invite your team into hard decisions.

If you’re facing cost cuts or severe economic headwinds, let your team into the conversation and engage them in identifying ways to make the hard decisions. I’ve seen this done multiple times, and the team is always harder on themselves then you might ever be, but they almost always find creative ways to save jobs while hitting cost targets — surfacing opportunities that you likely don’t have visibility into.

Showing Care and Appreciation to Struggling Employees

Many leaders become exasperated trying to figure out meaningful ways to let their teams know they genuinely care. Too many overreach for token perks that feel more like “checking the box” than sincere regard. But what people actually need is usually much simpler, and more practical. Here’s what you can do.

Help them reprioritize work.

One of the greatest signs of care you can show is helping team members reprioritize work when capacity has been cut. The “do more with less” paradigm is one of the many drivers behind millions quitting their jobs due to burnout.

You simply need to accept that less capacity will mean less output, and you need to help your team members figure out what work is no longer required. If you expect the same output from fewer people or financial resources, you’ll look out of touch and guarantee that you’ll get lower quality on everything. Allow your team to make informed recommendations of what work to pause or cut.

Stay available.

Your own guilt or resentment for having to make tough calls may lead you to instinctively withdraw from your team, assuming they blame you or now see you as the enemy. But distancing yourself will only reinforce their fears and bitterness. This is the time to move closer and let them know you genuinely care about them.

Check in regularly and ask how they’re doing and if there’s anything you can do to be supportive. Don’t be surprised if they’re cold or guarded at first — that’s to be expected. Be persistent and let them know you’re available to talk, listen, and share your perspective if and when they would like.

Should they choose to open up, listen attentively and empathically, using questions to draw them out. Rather than offering answers, use inquiry to help them explore choices they might consider to help things improve. If they ask for specific help from you, be clear on what you are — and aren’t — able to do.

Show appreciation for sacrifice and perseverance.

Let people know that you understand the toll their work has taken on them and that you appreciate their forbearance in the face of tough conditions. Be specific about the positive impact their efforts have had on the team’s performance, and when appropriate, make the appreciation public.

When people are fatigued and emotionally drained, they can easily feel isolated and unappreciated. Taking the time to acknowledge those who’ve gone extra miles is especially important so they don’t feel taken for granted. When feasible, encourage fatigued team members to take some time away from work to rejuvenate.

Foster community.

Difficult emotions are less debilitating when shared with others. Fear, anxiety, and bitterness instinctively prompt people to withdraw. Bring your team together for open dialogue about what’s happening and how people are feeling. It doesn’t have to devolve into a griping session or feel like a support group. Facilitate open conversation about the challenges the team is facing and how and where people are struggling.

By hearing one another’s shared challenges and feelings, people feel less alone and more apt to proactively support one another. When people remember there are others they can rely on, it generates a sense of hope and optimism.

Setting the Example

Managing yourself during tough times is probably the most important thing you can do. When people’s nerves are frayed, they become less tolerant of “say-do” gaps. Any hint of hypocrisy risks turning your people from demotivated to infuriated. Pay extra attention to all the cues others may be taking from how you’re enduring the turbulence. Here’s how you can do that.

Manage your emotions productively.

You can’t mask the toll that weathering tough conditions has had on you. You have to balance being vulnerable to let them see your humanity without dumping on them or making them worry about your capacity to lead.

It’s okay to admit you’re feeling angst or sadness and to share productive ways you’ve worked through those emotions. By modeling that it’s safe to acknowledge hard feelings, you make it safe for others to do the same and create a collective sense of community and support.

Model self-care.

We all know the importance of exercise, rest, eating healthy, and good mental health hygiene, but during times of intensified stress, when it’s more important than ever, we tend to cut corners on self-care.

If your team sees you taking care of yourself, it makes them more likely to follow suit. Many may fear that you could interpret prioritizing personal health and resilience as being uncommitted in the face of challenging times. Worse, your forfeiture of self-care may signal that you expect the same from them.

Demonstrate resilience.

Dealing with uncertainty often generates unanswerable questions. People naturally want to impose certainty where it doesn’t exist. By showing others how you maintain perspective when leaning into the unknown, you can help them discover their own resilience. They will naturally assume you know and control more than you do. Talk openly about how you’re dealing with the unknown, and how you have distinguished what you can control from what you can’t.

. . .

Leading through tough times is the hallmark of great leadership. Doing it well is often counterintuitive. Rather than reaching for a pep talk, a team-building event, or a nice dinner (all of which have a time and place), step back and consider the deeper, messier emotional experiences that lie beneath the tough times. More than anything, those you lead need to feel understood, validated, and supported. Give them that, and they can find their way back to choosing higher levels of motivation.

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