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How To Increase Employee Morale And Motivation In A Recession

Updated on August 25, 2012

Motivating employees can be a challenge in any economic environment, but now, more than ever before, it's imperative that our employees are producing top notch products able to effectively compete in the marketplace. Maintaining the status quo isn't enough. Marketing gimmicks and slashed prices won't do the trick on their own, and cutting costs can actually cause more harm than the money saved if it isn't done with a mind toward improving efficiency without affecting quality.

As the economy continued to weaken over the last couple of years, it became clear that the recession wasn't going to recover without a lot of pain. The longer it's dragged on, the more frantic employers have become. Some have gone about cost cutting in a frenzy without regard for how cutting those costs would affect them in the coming future. Projects were put on the back burner, orders from suppliers were cut or canceled, and jobs were eliminated.

Those who have been fortunate enough not to have joined the ranks of the unemployed have found themselves adrift in a sea of changes to management styles and organizational cultures. Many companies have adopted what the Economist magazine described as a “command-and-control” management style. In this type of culture, instead of motivation and collaboration methods being utilized, it's strictly one of delegation and compliance. It's also one where expectations, for those who have remained on the payroll, to absorb the workload of those who have departed.

Job stress is to be found in any job, but usually depends on particular situations such has an unusually busy period demanding more for a specified length of time, or unexpected shortages in staff that are remedied through hiring new employees. The stress that accompanies a bad economy extends into the workplace and becomes a barrier to motivating those still hanging on to their jobs. Employees become obsessed with worry over any possible pending layoffs or cutbacks in the labor force. Instead of quality job performance, their attention is focused on job security or the lack.

Stress over the lack of job security can take its toll in many ways. As employees expend more energy concentrating on their worries, they lose concentration on the job at hand. The psychological effects are irritability with coworkers, anger towards supervisors and management, feelings of mistrust, a negative attitude toward work, higher absenteeism, personal health problems, and a sense of hopelessness. Sometimes problems at work spill over into personal life, causing family problems and substance/alcohol abuse, which in turn, then becomes a work problem.

Where Do We Begin?

Avoiding the usual management driven pitfalls in dealing with a poor economic environment is the first step in maintaining a sense of focus and commitment among your employees. While issuing edicts and orders may seem to eradicate conflict and resistance from workers, in the long run it will only serve to suppress individual commitment, initiative and contribution.

As managers or supervisors, our first impulse is to take action to correct problems. However, failure to think before rushing in can be viewed negatively by our employees who may believe our actions are designed to sweep their fears under the rug. Openly acknowledging those fears and insecurities will go a long way toward creating an atmosphere of trust and communication.

Communication is the best weapon against loss of morale in troubled times. Employees don't like to feel out of the loop and kept guessing about what the immediate future may hold. It's best if frequent communication and even a few informal meetings take place where everyone is free to voice their concerns and worries. Such meetings can be a marketplace of ideas for how the company might address key issues affecting business as well as labor issues. It might also be a good time to start a blog where workers can turn to for up to date information on a regular basis.

It's been my experience that many employees don't understand the complexities to be considered in making management decisions. This is not because they are unintelligent, but simply because they don't need to acquire certain types of information to carry out their particular responsibilities. When time is taken to explain the issues we face as managers and supervisors, most employees can offer helpful suggestions that can work for all concerned. For instance, if a cutback in workforce is a necessary evil to staying afloat in bad economic times, we can help our staff to understand possible tradeoffs. Should we eliminate positions? Or would the staff prefer reduced hours and shorter work weeks? Eliminating positions will probably mean others will have to absorb the work load, and someone will be out of a job altogether. Reducing hours and work week may mean that everyone keeps their positions, but they will only be working the number of hours affordable to the company. Sharing the problems and asking for helpful input doesn't mean we're obligated to following their suggestions, but it's likely they will come up with some very useful ideas.


Building Momentum

One tool that can be used to great advantage is a questionnaire designed to study employee morale. Unfortunately, too many employees have filled out such questionnaires only to have them left to gather dust on their manager's desk. In some companies, such questionnaires are a joke among the employees and not taken seriously at all. If your company has earned a reputation for meaningless questionnaires, it's not a good idea to formulate yet another one. Other companies resist making use of them because they are afraid the data will reveal an endless stream of complaints and criticisms, and rather than deal with them, they choose to ignore them. This, in itself, causes plummeting employee morale. It's best to know the complaints and take steps to correct the issues if possible.

There's no time when teamwork is more important than in a poor economy. The old adage that two heads are better than one has never been more true. Now is the time to build teamwork among the staff. Include employees in making decisions for workplace strategies. Allow them to help set timetables for project completion dates. You may be surprised how much more quickly they will be able to achieve results if they feel like they are meeting their own self-imposed deadlines. No one likes to feel as though they are being asked to improve on what they believe is their best, but most will amp up their efforts if they are answering to themselves and not the guy they believe is getting all the credit.

Failure to recognize accomplishments and contributions is perhaps one of the major players in creating poor morale. Making even small gestures of recognition can go a long way in conveying appreciation of the human factor in your company. A quickly written congratulatory letter or a notice posted where others can see it will give a boost to flagging morale.

Keeping It Fresh

When the economy takes a dip, or in this case, a plunge, the first item on the chopping block is usually new projects. This can be a huge mistake. While it's necessary for a company to protect itself and to eliminate expenditures not necessary to survival, viewing all new projects as unnecessary can actually cause stagnation leading to even lower profits. New ideas and beginnings tend to energize people and bring increases in activity. Now is the time to take a second or third look at competitors. Have some withdrawn from the market? Are there new opportunities because of this? Evaluate how the changed economy has created changes in consumer spending. Can you capitalize on these changes?

It's also a good time to take another look at existing products. With all the changes in the financial environment, this may be the time to look for ways to improve on products or processes. Often during times of stability, employees take the stance of “why change what isn't broken” when management attempts to improve on various departments. Resistance tends to melt away when employees are faced with the very real possibility of sinking if they don't swim. Now is the time to make internal changes necessary for improved efficiency and productivity. It's an ideal time for including employees in helping to make decisions about those changes because it will also lend a hand in improving employee morale, as well as increasing the effectiveness.


Trust and Fairness Are The Foundation

Trust is the most important asset in dealing with human resources. Improving trust is key to making every other endeavor successful. There's no faster method for undermining trust than to cut jobs and create a dictator type of work environment. There's also no easier way to build trust than to begin with complete honesty, even if you have to warn employees about potential changes that will only be viewed as bad news. Too often managers hold back on the really bad news, hoping to keep their employees focused on the work before them rather than the reality of what the future holds. This is a mistake because when reality hits, employees feel abused. They rightfully believe the company allowed them to blindly move ahead with no time to prepare themselves for the worst. Such action only underscores a company's lack of commitment and consideration for the workers who have made their company prosper in better times.

The employment of fairness is essential in building and maintaining trust. Taking the time to explain the criteria used for making decisions which affect your employees welfare is a must. Though such explanations may still be met with criticism and complaints, it can't be avoided. The complaints and criticisms may actually lead to other workable solutions suggested by employees. Above all else, in order to foster trust and maintain it, we must remember to keep promises made, even if these promises are extremely tough to keep.


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    • Terri Meredith profile imageAUTHOR

      Terri Meredith 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      @WF: Ditto....but I write for expression and to share what I've learned. Doesn't do me much good to share if no one is able to read. Thanks

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 

      6 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      On the Second point, so am I!

    • Terri Meredith profile imageAUTHOR

      Terri Meredith 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks FW, but I doubt they actually read the articles that are earning them money. For one thing, they couldn't possibly read all that are published. Second, I think they're more concerned with the $ making capabilities.

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 

      6 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      I really hope the humans in the corporate office of HubPages reads this! Great article!

    • Terri Meredith profile imageAUTHOR

      Terri Meredith 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I think more employers know about the immediate benefits of communication, trust, and teamwork, but in this climate of high unemployment, they've chosen to go with the "more from where they came from" attitude. When there are more jobs than people to fill them, companies focus on retention. They can't afford to have unfilled positions, and the cost of turnover can become a real drag on their bottom line. But with so many people unemployed, that's not as much of a concern. If an employee earning a $50,000 annual salary leaves the company, it can be viewed by some as a benefit. The new replacement may only be offered $45,000, saving the company $5000. The cost of turning over that position most likely will not exceed 5 grand. There are quite a few companies letting their higher paid employees go, citing cutbacks. Then they reorganize job responsibilities and job descriptions, and hire replacements at a lower salary. The education and ability requirements are relatively the same, the responsibilities are relatively the same, but the cost of the employee has been reduced. Thanks for reading!

    • MelChi profile image

      Melanie Chisnall 

      6 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

      You raised some excellent points here, especially on open communication, trust and teamwork. If only more employers realized how easy it would be to keep staff morale up and to keep staff at their companies. Voted up, useful and interesting!


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