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Engaging your employees in a downturn


Engage in a downturnThe economy may have your business down, but has it got your employees down too? Donna Sizemore explains how to keep your workforce engaged and motivated.

When recession, competition or any other crisis strikes your organisation, do your fingers reach for the panic button? It’s simply human nature to do so. Instinctively, as leaders, we might want to curl up and wait until the storm passes. But when fear and doubt replace employee trust and encouragement, panic escalates fast. Yet the key to getting through trouble is right in front of you – your people.

Great managers know that their teams have the energy, ideas and commitment to get the company out of troubled waters. After all, they are the same people that made the organisation strong in the first place. But when managers shut down, when they stop communicating and encouraging their people, it sends a message: brush up your resume.

“Great leaders use recognition as a way to build confidence, focus employees on the right behaviours, and retain and engage their key people, especially during tough times.”

Great leaders, instead, use recognition as a way to build confidence, focus employees on the right behaviours, and retain and engage their key people, especially during tough times.

So, in the current landscape of crisis, do yourself a favour. Sit down. Take a deep breath. Look around you. Yes, there are challenges, and they may seem overwhelming. But as you look around, see the people who can help the organisation survive and, with a little recognition and encouragement, do more than survive – thrive.

Whatever storm you’re flying through right now, remember that great organisations use their formal recognition programmes strategically to gain a competitive advantage. For example, they direct more of their above-and-beyond awards toward acknowledging revenue-generating or cost-containment ideas. And with money tight, managers need to get creative and find day-to-day award ideas to keep recognition frequent and timely.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Turn responsibility into a reward. Ask an employee to train a new employee in a job function where the senior person excels. Explain what qualifies the mentor for this important assignment.

  • When employees must work on a weekend, provide a catered lunch. If appropriate, make it even better by inviting their families to join them.

  • When it comes to recognition, knowledge is power. Set a goal to find out one new thing about each of your employees today. Each detail could lead to recognition ideas.

  • You may be a great manager, but you can’t be everywhere at once, so ask for help. Give your people a stack of thankyou cards and ask them to recognise co-workers when they see them furthering company values.

  • Bring back something from your next business trip for each employee as a thankyou. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just thoughtful.

Effective recognition at work: Linked with profatibility

For all of you whose gut instinct has been telling you for years that employee recognition has a strong impact on the bottom line, you need empirical evidence to act on it. New data from independent researching firm HealthStream Research (formerly the Jackson Organisation) shows that from every angle, every financial metric, every way of looking at it, investing in recognising excellence is strongly associated with the best financial performance.

What makes this research so unique is the large sample size and the variance of company profitability and engagement among participants – 26,000 employees from 31 organisations participated in the survey. The result is data that is statistically unquestionable and firmly establishes the link between recognition and three important financial indicators: return on equity, return on investment, and operating margin.

The survey showed that companies that effectively recognise excellence enjoy a return on equity that is more than triple the return of companies that don’t. For leaders, this dramatically illustrates a strong, but often unnoticed, link between effective recognition and profitability.

Recognition and return on equity

Karen Endresen, of HealthStream Research, explained the findings this way: “Up until this study, the link between recognition and financial performance was largely anecdotal. Recognition was considered by some to be an emotional afterthought, while those who believed that effective recognition would drive results had no hard data to prove it. This study took recognition results from myth to reality; from the soft side of business to a proven business essential.”

You can download a PDF of the full survey at

In the theatre, great performers get applause and encouragement all through the play. The expression ‘show stopper’ comes from Broadway when the applause for an actor literally stops the performance mid-way through.

The same thing happens in sports. When Wayne Rooney scores a spectacular goal, do we nod and say: “He’s supposed to score?” Of course not. As fans, we recognise that each moment of excellence on the court must be rewarded with applause, for athletes to stay properly motivated. The same goes for excellence at work. Employees need regular recognition of their efforts for them to stay motivated.

Win hearts and minds from day one

“It’s imperative to win hearts and minds early, beginning on an employee’s first day at work.”

Did you know that nine out of 10 employees can tell you the date of their first day on the job? That’s why it’s imperative to win hearts and minds early, beginning on an employee’s first day at work.

Imagine what happens to a newly hired employee when, on the first few days of her employment, she receives recognition. Would an environment like that have an effect on your ability to keep new employees? How would your first job have been different if that company had properly acknowledged your contributions and created a culture of recognition and encouragement from day one?

If you do it right, you have a much better chance of keeping those good employees. Otherwise, very different seeds can be sown on that first day, including discontent, fear and instability.

A very simple way to start out right is to surprise a new employee with a welcome banner on the door or over her desk. If you’re not that flashy, a simple welcome card signed by the entire team is another way to greet a new person.

No matter what you do, cancel the first meeting of the morning and be sure you are there to greet her as she arrives in the morning and introduce her to co-workers. It will be the first of many great things to come.

Donna Sizemore is vice president of O.C. Tanner Europe.

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