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Don’t forget your employees when times get tough

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Rebuild trust amongst employeesIs the current economic climate having a negative effect on employee productivity and motivation? Cath Murphy offers some top tips for organisations looking to rebuild trust and staff engagement levels during the downturn.


All too often the human aspects of an economic downturn are ignored and rather than continuing to be ‘your finest asset’, your employees seem to get in the way; they cost too much, some are not motivated and they don’t contribute enough to improving results. Yet if morale is low, then it is also likely that trust in the business and the leadership will also be low.

The leader’s role is to provide direction and build hope and confidence in the future – particularly in times of uncertainty. To do this you need a high level of trust just at a time when people may be very critical of the business leadership. The following tips will assist in stabilising the team and in rebuilding trust and staff engagement:

Revisit your organisation’s strategy

Is it still relevant, both in the short and long term, or do you need a new strategy? What opportunities did you dismiss before that might be relevant now? Look for any new revenue opportunities that may arise and consider that this might be the time to steal a march on your competitors, who may not be able to react as swiftly or creatively to the economic situation as you can.

“The leader’s role is to provide direction and build hope and confidence in the future – particularly in times of uncertainty”

Provide clarity of business direction

Once the strategy is agreed and the plan is in place, ensure every employee understands the business plan. Provide milestones so your employees can see how the company and their division or function is progressing. Realign business and individual objectives so that each person understands how they can contribute to turning the business around.

Have a back-up plan

Anticipate ongoing deterioration in the economy and have a back-up plan, which might involve reducing expenses – including a reduction in staffing levels – and communicate effectively with your staff regarding this potential reduction. Look for ways to increase your staff efficiency and effectiveness, which may reduce costs and increase customer services, and look for areas where additional pressures and lower volumes may be alleviated by restructuring or changing processes.

Keep your talent

Identify the staff competencies that will be needed to move in the (possibly new) strategic direction. Use this as an opportunity to let poor performers go and invest now in discovering and developing the talent you will need for the future. Find remedies for skill gaps that may exist in the team, particularly where staff may not have experienced difficult economic conditions and help people anticipate the ramifications and build requisite skills. This helps to reduce fear and uncertainty and sets people up for success.

Get agile

Strategic agility is the ability to see ahead clearly and to anticipate consequences and trends accurately; to be future-oriented. Someone talented in this area can paint credible pictures of the possibilities and likelihoods looking forward, which can create competitive strategies and plans. This is one of the principal competencies of successful leaders in a changing environment and what you need when times are tough.

Manage expectations

Talk through with all staff the possible ramifications of a downturn, from mild through to severe and your plans for anticipating and responding in increasingly difficult times.

Address personal concerns

Don’t wait for your staff to voice their concerns about redundancies or lack of career opportunities – raise these issues head on. Generally, people aren’t listening to the rest of the messages if they are concerned about their own security. Spend plenty of time listening – understand what is happening at a personal level for each of your team.

Involve staff

Engagement in problem solving, brainstorming new ideas and planning for the future is motivating and more empowering than being told what to do. This can result in ideas the leadership has not considered.

Relentlessly communicate

Communicate (and communicate again) with your staff in a wide variety of ways from presentations, team meetings, brainstorm sessions and one-to-ones, both formal and informal. Be out there with the teams to know what the issues are; have a good feel for morale and be able to respond accordingly. While emails and the intranet convey information quickly and easily, face-to-face is the communication style most preferred by staff. Use it wherever possible, particularly on sensitive issues.

Lead by example

Leaders should be honest about the economic environment and its challenges for the business – and yet stay positive, exuding confidence that the company can work through this. If the leadership conveys anxiety and negativity, the staff will respond accordingly and productivity will slump. Be aware not only of the words used but also body language and tone.

“Leaders should be honest about the economic environment and its challenges for the business…and yet stay positive”

Don’t stop reward and recognition

Just think about your focus – during a downturn, pay increases may be modest or frozen and bonuses reduced or stopped. Plan any communication around these with great sensitivity and military precision. Look for opportunities to praise and provide positive feedback. Use simple recognition awards when the team has done something above and beyond the norm. Research shows it is recognition that most motivates staff and it costs little or nothing.

‘Stick with it’

Motivation, morale and retaining key players requires doing all of the above day in day out, these are not one-off activities. A combination of management (systems, processes, planning and implementation) and leadership (clarity of direction, change – what/why/how/skills, motivation, and engagement) will bring success.


A behaviour strategy designed to complement the business strategy will highlight the key areas of human focus and will enable leaders to think strategically while addressing their employee’s concerns. Leaders will be able to communicate with their staff effectively and implement actions that empower individuals and teams to engage their efforts enthusiastically for optimum performance.


Cath Murphy is a partner at ChangeMaker International.


2 Responses

  1. Communicate – but maybe not ‘relentlessly’
    Cath provides a good summary. It’s all good stuff – but so often hard to do for leaders who are faced with the dilemma of satisfying investors while maintaining staff morale. It’s a tough situation to be in, and many leaders – oo often confronted by the balance sheets rather than their front-line staff – esort to command and control mentality, where all effort is focused on cutting costs to maximise profits. This tends to be repeated throughout the levels of the organisation as teams are cut and those left inside the organisation are faced with more to do for no more reward.

    Such a policy may provide a short-term fix for shareholders, but the downside is demotivated employees, haunted by the fear of not delivering enough – and the perceived consequence that this may lead to losing their own job. It’s a downward spiral that tends to lead first of all to the best people in the organisation leaving, and second to the organisation being weak and exhausted even if it gets through the immediate recession.

    I’m facing this as I’m currently working on working on a training programme aimed at communicators who are dealing with leaders having to manage through the current economic mess. It’s nothing revolutionary, but my experience is that many communicators have never had to communicate through bad times before in their careers – and too many are falling back into passive roles, simply doing what their leaders tell them rather than challenging the command:control fallback.

    Three things really jump out at me. First, the need to bring internal and external communication together so that all communicators have a complete picture of what needs to be done and can plan to address the needs of each stakeholder group in full knowledge of the impact on others. Second, the vital need to maintain the Employer Brand – it’s far too easy to sacrifice all that’s good and distinctive about an organisation when the going gets tough. Finally, my experience is that we’re too quick to focus all our efforts on the people losing their jobs, and neglect the huge impact job losses, changing roles and reorganised departments have on those left to soldier on. Very quickly in the change process these people have to become the focus for our support and efforts – whether we’re line managers, business leaders or communicators.

    Overall, my view is that communicators have to be far more proactive both in counselling leadership and in understanding and militating the front line issues organisations face at present.

    ‘Relentless’ communication’ shouldn’t mean a raft of new media or costly events – or even wheeling out the big leadership guns without purpose. It’s much more about being open, honest and doing a few things really well.

    Find the communication channels that people see as credible – often face to face with direct line management – and give those directly involved the tools and skills they need to make such channels work.

  2. Very good summary
    Thank you for that. It is a very good summary. I realise that all summaries leave out some aspects. I guess I felt that the customer/competitor angles require a bit more emphasis. If I might suggest an addition, at the end of the strategy para, I would add, “Be even more clear than before about what you do to compete, and what you do to add value to customers”

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