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I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Don’t let it be your company’s swan song

Depending on when you read this article, the light at the end of the tunnel for your company might be that long-awaited, positive turning point in your business that you fought for. Or, it might be another train coming at you.

The continuing turmoil caused by this lengthy economic downturn has undoubtedly affected you and your employees in many ways, most of them negative. Even if your company has not been directly impacted by a reduction in force (such as layoffs), hiring freeze, reorganization or a realignment of responsibilities, the chances that your employees have been touched by one of these through friends, extended family or associates are highly likely. How your employees respond will run the gamut from finding ways to work harder and smarter and truly excel in times of adversity to drawing inside a shell, protecting their interests, blaming others for their troubles or engaging in even more insalubrious activities.

A January 2009 employee attitude survey found that most respondents (67 percent) said the economic situation has had a negative impact on their state of mind (motivation), while another 15 percent admitted it has almost paralyzed them with fear. Another 15 percent said they are actually more motivated as a result of the economic downturn. Reasons for this motivation included fear of being laid off and an increased workload.

As you are well aware, a motivated workforce is crucial to ensuring you have engaged, productive and dedicated employees that are quality salespeople and advocates for your company. While it typically does not take an abundance of resources to guarantee you are motivating the right people in the right way, it does take an appreciation of the differences in how everyone is motivated. Some employees will be motivated by money, competition and increased pressure, while others prefer encouraging words, team building and appreciation exhibited from you and fellow colleagues. Failure to properly motivate your staff will have a devastating effect on the health of your business and the bottom line.

In most companies, a workforce begins to lose motivation when management becomes aware of a potential financial crisis, or other uncertainties, and begins to reduce the workforce and as many other costs as possible. These types of behavioral changes are almost certain to send shock waves throughout any organization.

Also, as is often the case during the beginning of an organizational crisis, communication between management and the workforce begins to deteriorate. Renditions of the old Marvin Gaye song take over, and the informal grapevine is in control, often raising anxiety to new heights and leading to overstated consequences. Employees begin to get angry and detached, and eventually resign themselves to the impending loss of their jobs. This, of course, leads to management becoming even more secretive, thereby continuing the vicious cycle.

In addition to the moralistic and human nature concerns, you must consider the financial bottom line and how it is affected. The subtle impacts are the lower production outcome exhibited by employees resulting from decreased concentration, irritability and anger directed at management and coworkers, higher absenteeism and even substance abuse. The not-so-subtle impacts include an increased theft of materials, supplies, money, time and other company-owned items.

So what is management to do? The following four suggestions can counter the impact of the negativity and hopefully assist you in navigating through this transition.

  • Establish a sense of honesty and understanding by first acknowledging the obvious insecurities, uncertainties, suspicions and fears felt by your employees.
  • Openly and honestly discuss the difficult and complex challenges and decisions that need to be made. Engage employees by seeking suggestions regarding new ways to improve processes, reduce costs, etc.
  • Increase the frequency and vary the methods of communication to employees. Encourage collaboration and set the example from the top down. Communicate via conferences, the intranet, blogs, newsletters, one-on-one meetings, etc. In this case, more truly is better.
  • It is important to make these efforts your number-one priority. You will be the focal point of this endeavor, so you must demonstrate your desire to succeed through your behavior and actions. Be quick to recognize and reward, and celebrate contributions and achievements.

Depending on your personal style, characteristics and the organizational environment, some of these ideas may be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. However, the less you do will be in direct proportion to the chances of your business surviving and thriving during this transition. Remember, this economic downturn will run its course, and the job market will once again be plentiful. To this end, you want to be the business and organization that the survivors will want to join, not leave.