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Motivating Others Through Change and Challenging Times

 

by Dr. Marilyn Manning

High-performing managers embrace change rather than resist it. The best leaders are those who inspire whole teams to succeed in uncertain times. Here are tips to help you motivate others through our current highly-challenging times.

Change is inevitable. Whether you’re at the top or the bottom of an organization, one thing you can count on in the future is that there will be change. Another thing you can count on is that these changes, whatever they turn out to be, will cause stress to you and your employees, since stress is a normal human response to change. The past year has seen unprecedented changes in the economy with a huge decline, massive layoffs and mergers, and general unease about the future of whole segments of the marketplace. The events cause most people to have heightened feelings of stress.

The wake-up call from the past year showed that managers who are able to accept change today and plan for change in the future get rewarded with more motivated employees. Here are a few simple guidelines that the most successful leaders follow.

Use Feedback to Help Manage Change

For companies and employees that faced major changes such as layoffs, ongoing communication is key. One of the causes of stress in layoffs or terminations is that employees are rarely fully informed. In trying to be sensitive to potential layoffs and other negative situations, managers may attempt to “protect” employees from the truth. While this may postpone hurt feelings, it also cheats employees out of critical lead time for survival. Managers may also withhold information to protect stock price and competitive action.

Lack of information in general leads to uncertainty and anxiety, which often shows up in rumors, gossip, and accompanying loss of productivity. When employees do not have information, they connect the dots, take what they do know and tell a story that fits. When they “make up” the rest it is often cause of more anxiety because it is usually worse than the real situation. Meanwhile morale drops and employees feel cheated, unappreciated and this too gets reflected in their lack of top performance.

A much better approach is to keep staff informed about anticipated changes in an educational way. There’s a fine line, however, between keeping them “in the loop” and sending them into panic with too much information, and wise managers know how to strike that balance. The message that the communication lines are open is one that is positive and should be reinforced throughout the year.

Often managers are required to give appraisals once a year. Wise managers know that once a year is hardly a motivating experience.

Regular, ongoing feedback will remind employees of performance expectations as well as giving them updates. Ongoing feedback is particularly important when organizations are changing or responding to new market conditions. It is what keeps staff on track in the turbulence.

Follow Ken Blanchard’s advice in the One Minute Manager: when you see an employee doing something wrong, give a “one-minute reprimand”, and if you see something positive, give praise on the spot. If you are in constant communication with employees there should be few surprises, and employees will be able to feel more control of their own futures. It turns out that control over one’s own destiny is critical for high motivation on the job. Keeping employees informed so there are no surprises helps provide this control.

Tracking Results, Sharing Feedback, Increases Motivation

We all need feedback. It’s often the lack of feedback and information that adds to stress levels. Most of us know or sense when negative feedback is being withheld. We would rather hear the “news,” be it good or bad, directly from the source rather than through the grapevine.

When you are give feedback, try using the following process:

Clearly tell employees what you like about their performance. Studies from Hewitt and Mercer suggest that often staff does not know what they are doing right.

If there are changes in behavior or direction you would like to see, clearly communicate those. Be precise about what employees need to accomplish or change, and include specific measurable results. Clarify your expectations and theirs. Communication can produce stress especially when there is a critical component to the feedback, when assumptions are not checked out, when emotions are running high.

Be sure to follow-up dialog in writing to limit misunderstandings. Write an agreement, set a date by which the employee must meet the goals and timeframes described in the assignment, and have him or her sign it. For example you can articulate,

“You must improve your spreadsheet accuracy to 98% by June 30. We will look at your progress on the first of the month for the next 3 months to assess progress and resolve any problems. We’ll meet Monday mornings, twice a month, to discuss your progress, and we’ll do a wrap-up meeting on June 30th for a final assessment. The agreement we both just signed puts this all in writing so there can be no misunderstanding. Do you have any questions?”

Ramp up Motivation by Recognizing and Planning for the Stages of Transition during Major Changes

Change, especially imposed change, causes stress. There is a typical progression that you and the employee will go through in accepting reorganizations, terminations, layoffs or any other major change.

Denial. First, you may deny that the action or change is necessary. Managers often deny that the situation is critical. The employee also may deny the situation, thinking, “They won’t let me go, I’ve been here too long.” While you may not be able to guide employees to a level of acceptance, it is especially important for you to accept the situation. You have to see how these actions are for the overall good of the organization and its success or survival, and your leadership will be seen and reflected by others. Communicating about the big picture, while accepting employee denial, is a winning formula for this stage.

Resistance. People understand negative situations, but often can’t take action. They can become immobilized, especially by fear. As the parties recognize the problem, they may first blame each other for the situation. The manager thinks, “If she only completed more projects, she wouldn’t be in this situation.” The employee believes: “It’s the manager’s fault that I didn’t get adequate training so that I could be successful in my job; I should have been protected.” The employee is frozen and is seen as being uncooperative or resisting the change. For managers, movement of the frozen thinking is the win. Even slight movement is worth encouraging.

Self-blame. Next, most people go through self-blame and second guessing their own role in the situation. The manager may think, “It’s my fault. I should have offered more help. The employee might say, “I should have put in more hours” or “I should have transferred to another project.” As a manager, you have to monitor and manage your own reactions to change and stress. When you are in a state of denial, resistance or self blame, you will not be an effective coach or leader. Do your homework, understand executive strategies and the big picture and move through your negative emotions quickly. Motivational strategies focus on empathetic, yet realistic communication.

Exploration and Acceptance. The next stage is acceptance and exploring options. Getting to this phase sooner rather than later is the goal of managing the process. This restores productivity.

For example a manager thinks, “I hate to do it, but I have to let them go. These are my options, and these are the steps I’m going to take to keep motivation high among my survivors.” The employee may say, “I now understand why this didn’t work out and I know what I can do to succeed and protect my job if this ever happens again.” or “I understand the bigger picture and what training I need in order to reposition myself.”