British businesses need to motivate and inspire battle-weary employees

Why the glum face?

British businesses have faced relentless challenges over the last few years. There has been a constant stream of depressing news about financial problems both locally and globally. In the last few months alone, several large British companies have suffered serious issues, with high street giants announcing job cuts and HMV going into administration.

According to research from collaborative work management software company, Mindjet, British CEOs spent the last financial year focusing their businesses on achieving quantifiable financial goals, such as sustainable, top-line and emerging market growth. Tim Ohlenburg, Senior Economist at the Centre for Economics and Business Research confirms they’ve struggled to achieve these goals, explaining that economic growth was disappointing last year, dramatically limiting business profits and constraining expansion. It’s no wonder that British CEOs were found by PWC to be amongst the world’s most downbeat.

Struggling towards success

Aside from the financial issues limiting businesses ability to meet their CEOs goals, there are several “softer” HR problems that have had an impact. Research released last month by  Mindjet suggests that while half of British employees (54%) care passionately about helping their employer to be successful, an equally large number (32%) think they need to change their everyday working practices in order to be better at their job. Worryingly, the research, which aimed to help businesses better understand their employees motivations and frustrations, showed that 19% feel unmotivated to succeed, echoed by the finding that a quarter just haven’t got around to changing for the better. In addition, many feel that a lack of resources (24%), senior direction (23%) and inefficient communication (18%) holds them back from fulfilling their potential; which in turn means they’re enjoying their job less (27%) and feel stressed (27%). These statistics are seriously concerning. Imagine a football team where only 6 players were actually playing with enthusiasm or were concerned about the success of the team! It’s obvious that this will have had a negative effect on business over the last year and will continue to do until addressed.

Unfortunately pressing financial issues often mean that companies forget to think about HR related issues. Motivated and engaged employees are at the heart of business success, and there’s no time when this is truer than in tough economic conditions. Yet, it’s just at this moment that employee motivation and engagement drops as employers can lack the resources to support and reward them. The focus can all too easily turn to constant cost-cutting, which puts further pressure on employees and undermines morale and enthusiasm.

Inspiring and engaging employees

Disengaged employees are one of the biggest threats facing British business. The key to turning things around is to face up to these problems, rather than brushing them under the carpet. In the first instance, business leaders should aim to communicate a vision that forces employees to think beyond the current downturn and that will excite and inspire them about the future. Mid-level management needs to take more responsibility for engaging with their teams and take an interest in their health and well-being. Listening to staff and encouraging their feedback is crucial to identifying small niggles before they become big problems, and gives managers a much better idea of what keeps them coming in every day. Recognising and rewarding enthusiasm is also hugely motivating for most people, while setting clear goals means that every team member knows where their business is going and why. Clear communication is also critically important. It should be easy to get right but it’s so often not, particularly when things are busy and teams are under pressure. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the numbers and forget about understanding the people involved in a project – motivation is very much about understanding that people are individuals. Simple steps such as briefing people in person or over the phone, rather than sending hurried emails, can make a real difference.

Looking to the future

Businesses are looking at a slow start to 2013/2014. At a time when they’re still striving to do more with less, they need the full support of their employees, which means they need to address as a priority the issues identified by Mindjet.  Businesses of all sizes need to look at how they can harness the passion revealed by this research – in tougher times people management can seem like less of a priority but it’s essential to keep your workforce engaged. It’s hard to find good people, so when you do, you’ve got to look after them. For those in a management position it’s important to remember that part of the role is to translate the CEO’s business goals and ideas into action. It’s not enough to direct down and expect people to deliver. You need to collaborate, communicate and innovate; even if it means looking at new ways of doing things and embracing change. It’s only by embracing change, inspiring employees and giving them the tools they need to work smarter that the UK will be able to achieve clear business success.

Professor Nelson Phillips, Chair in Strategy and Organisational Behaviour, Imperial College London 

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