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Are Staff Demanding More Than You Can Give?

by Jennifer McCoy

In the middle of an economic crisis, just when you thought you had enough on your plate, are your staff wanting to know what's going on? Looking for impossible answers? Are they losing interest in work or even falling apart, just at a time when you need their support to keep your business on track?

Even if you can't give definite answers; even if you are worried about your own business or job, staff still need leadership. You still need to act like a leader.

It might be all too easy and understandable to forget staff concerns when your own job is on the line or your business is seriously challenged. Just as likely though, is that your concern for your staff, about the possibility having to let them go, has meant avoiding confrontation by maintaining silence, hoping the problem will resolve itself. Neither strategy works!

Staff will always know when something is wrong; your silence will lead them to assume the worst. In fact, there's the real possibility they'll come to distrust you personally if you avoid the issues. They can see what is going on around them; they've probably got mortgages, children and school fees; they read the papers and see the TV; they may have friends who've been retrenched. They are feeling just as insecure as you are. So what can you give staff, if there are no answers?

What will keep staff engaged?

Let's look first at what staff need from their work - in good times or bad. They want a leader, someone they can trust, someone who cares about them; someone who offers them a measure of hope. You are still that leader.

You need them to be actively working for you. You need engaged staff; not people simply putting in time because they fear you might suddenly sell them out. You want staff who work with you to retain the business and build for the better times. You need them as much as they need you and their job. Don't trust that employment challenges will necessarily keep staff engaged in your business. It's easy to turn up and switch off, moving into survival mode; and that's not going to help you and your business.

What does "engagement" mean?

Employees feel a vested interest in the company's success and are both willing and motivated to perform to levels that exceed the stated job requirements. When they are engaged they will contribute their best ideas and offer better customer service leading to improved financial results; while at the same time feeling connected to something worthwhile in making significant contributions.

Mercer's What's Working research 1

What have other companies done?

Mercer's What's Working¹ research across 22 countries has identified four relatively consistent factors that will drive employee engagement:

  • The work itself, including opportunities for development
  • Confidence and trust in leadership
  • Recognition and rewards
  • Organizational communication

Plus, they found

  • Australian workers specifically, value the quality of workplace relationships. Where their manager does not play an active and regular role in their coaching, six out of 10 will consider leaving the organization.

A recent study (released March 27, 2009) into Talent Management by Novations 2 found that the companies most successful in handling the downturn, where they have been forced to reduce staff, have set high standards, made sure everyone is engaged and invested in staff development – coaching and rewarding effort.

Five strategies to try

So, what can you do to keep staff on side, giving their commitment to you and your business, even in tough times? Here are five suggestions to try.

  1. Never underestimate your staff. They want communication and they want opportunities for development. Tell staff what is happening and keep them informed. Be honest about your situation, as far as you can. Show them you can be trusted. At best staff will be willing to help you weather any storm; at worst they can prepare themselves for change and in doing so relieve you of some of the burden should the worst eventuate.

  2. Set your goals for the business and new goals for them. Set high expectations and then support everyone in meeting them. Seek their advice and their assistance in positioning your business for survival. Staff can usually tell where efficiencies can be made, where there is wastage. They hear what customers are saying. By working with them instead of alone, you can save the business – and their jobs.

  3. Continue to build the relationship. Show your concern for your staff. Let them see you value them and really do care about their future. Ask them about their own situation. One company we heard of paid for financial advisors to come in and talk to staff, not as a retrenchment planning strategy, simply as a goodwill offer. A very small investment, but one that repaid heaps in securing relationships.

    During an earlier recession at a training organisation being slowly downsized as negotiations took place for amalgamation with a university, staff were constantly fed mis-information, reassured their jobs were secure under the new arrangements, or at least that they would be handsomely rewarded for staying until a decision had been made.

    In this case it wasn’t their immediate managers but their political masters calling the shots. Staff were needed to maintain existing training services for the industry it served and losing them would have spelled serious difficulties for the industry.

    Neither of the options proposed for staff eventuated, except for a very small number. At the end, most were simply retrenched and left to themselves to find other jobs – sometimes after months of trying.

    Meanwhile, in that interim period, gossip, mistrust and conflict grew steadily worse as one-by-one individual staff members were retrenched, while those remaining tried to justify the latest casualty by blaming the victim instead of learning from the experience and preparing themselves for a similar fate.

    Sabotage, theft and destruction were unexpected outcomes too as anger boiled over and unknown staff sought their own forms of revenge.

  4. Remember, Australian staff say they want their managers to coach them. Try some coaching strategies, designed to invite people to stretch out of their comfort zones, reflect on what they know and then suggest possibilities and solutions:

    • Ask "What if.." questions to encourage people to think outside the box: "What if we closed for one day a week?" "What if we asked clients to.."
    • Brainstorm ideas – and don't condemn even the seemingly crazy ones. Something useful often emerges. Then settle on the most useful ideas, cement them into a goal and timeframe – and follow through.
    • Encourage staff to be self-reliant. Continue training and also discuss the need for everyone to always prepare themselves for the future.
    • Encourage their coaching skills so they can be supportive of each other.
    • Develop with staff a range of strategies for surviving: debriefing with laughter after minor crises, ‘chalking up’ achievements both individual and business.
    • Coach yourself to stay positive: give yourself small breaks, keep a list of all the positives, share the load.
  5. Don't forget to reward effort and celebrate even small achievements. You and your team are expending enormous effort in maintaining a positive attitude, let alone striving for success while everyone else seems to be giving up. Rewards can be simple: ask staff about that as well. And, always start with a thank you.

See also:

1 Engaging employees to drive global business success. (2008) Mercer.
What’s Working™ research: Engaging_Employees_To_Drive_Business.pdf
2 Novations: Survey Media Release 3 How to lead in lean times (2009): http://www.smartcompany.com.au/managing-people/20090409-10-downturn-leadership-secrets.html