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How To Motivate Your Employees In Difficult Times

Maybe you need to ask them to work less


You have not been hitting your numbers. Employee turnover has increased. People around you look deflated. Times are tough. What can you do to motivate your employees and turn things around? 

When Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s EMEA boss, faced a similar situation a few years ago, he took a step back. He wanted to learn how to help his employees at Twitter enjoy work again. He decided to create a podcast about work culture, the popular Eat Sleep Work Repeat. As a host, Daisley went on to interview the world’s leading experts on how to make our jobs happier and more fulfilling.

He has now compiled his findings in his best-selling book The Joy of Work. In a recent discussion, Daisley gave me his best tips for motivating employees in difficult times.

Increase employees’ scope and autonomy

Daisley shared that his biggest wake-up call was that “it is easy when things are not going well to try to be controlling. You can end up removing the trust that you give to people, and the way that comes across is that they lose autonomy. ” 

He used the metaphor of a driving lesson. When you are teaching someone to drive, and it is going well you are relatively laid back. When the lesson is failing, you start giving more instructions, tend to raise your voice, and you may try to take the wheel. Stress is making you micromanage which is making everything worse.

When times are tough, people witness the alarming signs like decreasing sales or high turnover. But on top, as a result of the micromanagement, they do not feel able to try to fix it. They get infantilized waiting for instructions. 87% of employees are not engaged with their jobs as shown by global Gallop survey. 

Daisley argues for increasing people’s scope and autonomy during difficult times. “You try to inspire their own survival instincts and invite them to help you come up with solutions,” he says. 

Help them connect with their work’s purpose

Seeing the impact your job has is motivating. Cooks make tastier food when they can look at their customers. Employees who call donors for scholarships raise more money when they meet a student aided from these dollars. You can inspire your employees by assisting them to connect more with their end-customer and their job’s purpose.

Unfortunately, many times we are stuck in our office away from the people we serve. A reason for this is that many of our bosses have an inner “evil mill owner” voice as Daisley calls it. When the office is quiet and empty, the voice asks “where is everybody?” 

People need flexibility to be away from their desks for multiple reasons including the need to work without distractions or the desire to get out in the real world for inspiration. As a leader, you need to ignore the “evil mill owner” voice. “Presume you have permission until you are told otherwise,” Daisley tells his staff. They can come late in the office or leave early without asking. 

Protect them from burnout

Even though knowing the Why of your job is essential, Daisley argues it is not enough. “Twitter is a purpose-led business,” he told me. “The people who stayed are motivated by what we are trying to do.” Still, when times were tough Daisley and his team felt drained. 

Daisley attributes much of this exhaustion to the modern way of working. Constantly on-call, most of us are at the edge of burnout. You can increase your staff’s productivity, creativity, and motivation by doing small tweaks in how you all work. 

Encourage lunch breaks and walking meetings. Do not require more than 40 hours of work and allow people to disconnect from email when they go home. Create the conditions for deep work by accepting headphones or allowing “monk mornings” where people are disconnected.

Exhausted employees cannot help you turn the business around. As Simon Sinek said: “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.”

Increase psychological safety 

When times are tough, people are afraid of losing their jobs. This fear reduces their psychological safety. They keep their head down and try not to rock the boat. 

That’s what happened to Nokia which never recovered after the launch of iPhone and Android. Its executives thought that their new operating system, Symbian would fix the problem. 

The challenge according to Cass professor Andre Spicer, was that Symbian was terrible. Nokia staff knew it. It was not innovative and competitive enough. But, they decided not to say anything. Spicer explains that “they feared to communicate the bad news up the hierarchy because they did not want to appear to be negative.” The results for the business were catastrophic. 

Daisley gives several tips on how to increase psychological safety in the workplace. The leader owning up to her mistakes is a big one. The team laughing together is also important.

Another one is asking staff to focus on the problem and not the person. Ask people to share their concerns about what could go wrong by doing a pre-mortem for important projects.

And, while Daisley advocates cutting the time we spend on meetings in half, he is in favor of social gatherings. 73% of all plane accidents happened on the first day the crew was flying together. You do not want your team to make errors due to lack of trust or communication. It is time to order some pizzas and gather around to have an informal chat. 

Conclusion

Twitter is now profitable and often selected among the best places to work. Daisley’s tips go against what we are used to hearing from Silicon Valley executives. They usually foster overwork and idolize difficult bosses. But, Daisley has science to back him up.

If you want to motivate your employees, you often need to go against your instincts. Give your staff more autonomy rather than less. Help them see the bigger picture and connect with their purpose. Encourage them to work smarter rather than harder. And, make them feel safe rather than fearful. Not only will you and your team be happier, but the results will reflect it as well. 



Caterina Kostoula is an executive coach. To receive tips on how to create meaningful impact and a fulfilling life, you can subscribe to the Leader’s Path.  Connect on LinkedIn or Facebook.

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