Engaging Others When the Economy Sucks

By Schon Beechler

Many employees around the world live in a world of fear—the fear of not knowing what’s going to happen next, the fear of losing their jobs, the fear of not being able to provide for their children, the fear of having few or no options left when the bottom drops out of their lives.  Their managers likewise live in a world of fear—of losing of their own jobs, of having to fire good people, of watching all that they and their colleagues have built disappear before their very eyes.

How can executives inspire and motivate themselves and those who work for them when so much fear is in the air? This was the question I posed yesterday to a group of senior executives at a major global financial institution.

Bright, hard-working managers are struggling because they have seen their arsenal of motivators dissipate since the financial crisis: Money is tight and so the big payouts are down. Companies have had to become leaner and more efficient. Opportunities for advancement have disappeared with the slowdown in growth and layoffs. Learning opportunities (a huge motivation for generation Y) have been cut. And there is little clarity from senior management about the direction the company will pursue to thrive in the future.

So many factors seemed out of their control that a sense of helplessness began to fill the room. It is this sense of helplessness that is infecting many companies today and is helping to fuel a downward spiral of despair and disengagement and cynicism in many workplaces.

There is no doubt that there are many challenges, many outside of their control. These executives agreed that this is just part of life, and it’s not likely to change anytime in the near future. But we also agreed that there were things within their control and it was there that we needed to focus.

And so the inquiry began. The first question we tackled was, Why do we work? The answer, of course, is that it’s for the money—most of us wouldn’t be working for our current employers if they stopped paying us.

But money is often a less powerful motivator than we think. Numerous studies show that people need to be paid enough so that money is not an issue, but beyond that, it is other things such as autonomy, a sense of meaning and purpose, and mastery are important intrinsic motivators. Even for investment bankers, money may have its limits as a motivator. The current economic situation may not present us with an impossible situation after all.

The second question we discussed was, Even if there is no extra cash and limited promotion and training opportunities, what can each of us do to motivate ourselves and those around us? This question was first greeted by silence, but soon the ideas were flying fast and furious:

  • Give people time or schedule flexibility if cash for raises or bonuses is not available
  • Bring junior staff out with us on client visits to connect them with a greater sense of purpose
  • Provide time off to explore free or inexpensive courses offered in the community
  • Organize teams to work together on a community service activity to bring a greater sense of meaning and “doing good” from being a part of the company
  • Share positive feedback from clients with the staff
  • Stop micromanaging work and give employees greater ownership over a piece of the business

And the list went on….

In the space of an hour, the conversation went from hopeless to hopeful and from draining energy to the energy of giving. Nothing “out there” had changed in that hour. It was the same tough environment. And yet, something had changed “in here,” inside their headsets.  That’s what needs to happen in every office for us to truly get out of our current malaise.

If leaders do not have hope, how can they offer a vision of the future to engage their employees? If they aren’t motivated themselves, how can they motivate others and ask them to put in their best work? If they can’t find meaning in the work that they do, how can they inspire others to come into the office and create new opportunities? Perhaps the most challenging task of leadership is merely to change the channel in their headsets and rediscover hope and possibility.

Our session ended. The room was abuzz, and a sparkle had replaced the dull, glassy look in their eyes. It may not enough to keep the executives going indefinitely, but it was a start.